Sec. of State John Kerry was in Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia, for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers Meeting this week, warning China to pull back on it’s military build-up of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
The conference was attended by all 10 top diplomats of the regional bloc, as well as officials from dozens of other countries, including China.
In May, aerial photos showed mobile artillery, aircraft runways, and harbors being built on top of submerged reefs there. A U.S. P8-A Poseidon Navy aircraft was warned eight times by Chinese naval command to stay away from the area.
Since then, military officials in the Philippines have indicated that China has ordered them to keep their military planes from flying over islands where the construction is taking place.
“Freedom of navigation and overflight are among the essential pillars of international maritime law,” Kerry said. “Let me be clear: The United States will not accept restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight, or other lawful uses of the sea.”
China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei, all have competing claims in the neutral territory of the South China Sea, which navigates $5 trillion in yearly shipping trade.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi released a statement Thursday defending his country’s naval operations.
“First off, the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable, and there is no possibility of a major clash,” the statement read. “China opposes any non-constructive words and acts which widen division, exaggerate antagonism or create tensions.”
Wang Yi also claimed that Chinese island-building has “already stopped”.
Apparently ASEAN summit leaders didn’t buy-into minister Wang’s deescalating rhetoric, as they issued the following joint statement to conclude the ASEAN meeting:
“We discussed extensively the matters relating to the South China Sea and remained seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments in the area . . . land reclamations . . . have eroded the trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the (region).”
Sec. Kerry didn’t seem to buy what China’s minister was selling either, telling reporters Thursday, “The Chinese have indicated that they have stopped. I hope it is true. I don’t know yet.”
[The Guardian] [Reuters]