Offering to Aid Talks, U.S. Challenges China on Disputed Islands
July 23, 2010
HANOI, Vietnam — Opening a new source of potential friction with China, the Obama administration said Friday that it would step into a tangled dispute between China and its smaller Asian neighbors over a string of strategically significant islands in the South China Sea.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at an Asian regional security meeting in Vietnam, stressed that the United States remained neutral on which regional countries had stronger territorial claims to the islands. But she said that the United States had an interest in preserving free shipping in the area and that it would be willing to facilitate multilateral talks on the issue.
Though presented as an offer to help ease tensions, the stance amounts to a sharp rebuke to China. Beijing has insisted for years that all the islands belong to China and that any disputes should be resolved by China. In March, senior Chinese officials pointedly warned their American counterparts that they would brook no interference in the South China Sea, which they called part of the “core interest” of sovereignty.
Many of the islands are just rocks or spits of sand, but they are rich in oil and natural gas deposits, and China views them as important outposts that extend its territorial waters far into the busy shipping lanes in the sea.
“The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” Mrs. Clinton said.
The announcement was a significant victory for the Vietnamese, who have had deadly clashes in past decades with China over some of the islands. Vietnam’s strategy has been to try to “internationalize” the disputes by bringing in other players for multilateral negotiations.
The administration’s decision to get involved appeared to catch China flat-footed and angered its foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, at a time when the country is already on edge over naval exercises the United States and South Korea will hold starting this weekend off the Korean Peninsula.
Twelve of the 27 countries at the security meeting spoke out in favor of a new approach to the South China Sea, prompting Mr. Yang to observe that the American effort seemed orchestrated.
International concern has been deepening about China’s maritime ambitions, which have expanded with its economic and military muscle. China raised tensions with Vietnam this year with plans to develop tourism in one of the island groups, the Paracels, which the two nations fought over in 1974 before China assumed full control. They had another lethal clash in 1988 over the Spratly island group.
In recent months, administration officials said, China has harassed fishing boats and leaned on energy companies that have tried to make offshore deals with other countries.
Although American relations with China on political and economic matters are regarded as stable, military ties have become strained over United States arms sales to Taiwan and American concerns about China’s growing naval ambitions. In June, China withdrew an invitation to host a visit by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and the two have largely suspended regular military-to-military talks.
This week, China was already bristling over the joint American-South Korean naval exercises because some drills are to take place in the Yellow Sea, which China claims as a military operation zone....