Washington will not tolerate navigation restrictions in the South China Sea, US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a summit in Malaysia. China and several Asian countries have disputing claims in the strategic region.
Kerry accused China on Thursday of raising tensions in the disputed areas in the South China Sea, by building facilities for "military purposes" on manmade islands.
The top US diplomat urged all claimants to commit to halting "further land reclamation and construction of new facilities or militarization on disputed features," in front of representatives of 27 ASEAN countries in Kuala Lumpur.
According to the United States, China has reclaimed more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of territory by fortifying small reefs and constructing military posts during the last 18 months. In comparison, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan together claimed only 100 acres (40 hectares) in the last 45 years.
"With great respect to my friend and colleague [Chinese] Foreign Minister Wang [Yi], the United States and others have expressed concern to China over the pace and scope of its land reclamation efforts," Kerry said. "The construction of facilities for military purposes only raises tensions and the destabilizing risk of militarization by other claimant states."
'Hope' that reclamation ended
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that land reclamation had "already stopped," and that ASEAN and China both wanted to resolve the issue through dialogue.
At the same time, Wang signaled that countries without claims, including the United States, should allow China and the other claimants to deal with the disputes on a bilateral basis. Other countries, however, had pushed for a joint agreement on ending reclamation.
In his Thursday speech, Kerry stated that Wang's commitment to resolving the South China Sea issue had not been as "fulsome" as some had hoped.
"But it's a beginning, and it may open up some opportunity for conversation on this in months ahead," Kerry said. "We'll have to wait and see."
Kerry also said he could not confirm the Chinese statement that it has stopped land reclamation projects.
"I hope it is true," he said. "I don't know yet."
Other envoys in Kuala Lumpur also downplayed Wang's claims.
"They're not saying they're stopping construction, nor are they saying they'll stop future reclamation," a diplomat told reporters.
Freedom of movement
Kerry also complained that China has not honored vows to ease tensions and to not try to exert control over South China Sea navigation or flights.
"Let me be clear: The United States will not accept restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight, or other lawful uses of the sea. These are intrinsic rights that we all share," Kerry said.
"It doesn't matter whether a vessel is a large warship or a tiny fishing boat. The principle is clear: The rights of all nations must be respected," he added.
China has repeatedly insisted that it has the right to conduct reclamation projects and has rejected any US involvement.
dj/sms (AFP, Reuters, AP)