US presses Beijing on South China Sea claims
US navy helicopters on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier in the South China Sea on October 24, 2013 - by Martin Abbugao
With tensions already high over Beijing's imposition of an air zone above islands administered by Japan in the East China Sea, fears are growing of a fresh showdown in a separate row in the South China Sea where the Philippines is especially concerned.
Addressing the rifts, the top US diplomat for the region challenged Beijing's so-called "nine-dash line" that outlines its territorial claims over much of the South China Sea.
Danny Russel, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said that maritime claims under international law needed to be based on land features.
"Any Chinese claim to maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law," Russel told a congressional committee.
"China could highlight its respect for international law by clarifying or adjusting its claim to bring it into accordance with international law of the sea," he said.
Russel supported the Philippines' right to take its case to a United Nations tribunal -- a move last year that was denounced by China -- as part of efforts to find a "peaceful, non-coercive" solution.
"China's lack of clarity with regard to its South China Sea claims has created uncertainty in the region and limits the prospect for achieving mutually agreeable resolution or equitable joint development arrangements," Russel said.
Russel's remarks indicate an increasingly activist US stance on the South China Sea. In 2010, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared on a visit to Vietnam that freedom of navigation was a US national interest in the South China Sea, through which more than half of the world's merchant goods are shipped.
But the United States, while boosting military cooperation with allies Japan and the Philippines, has generally stressed that it takes no stance on sovereignty in Asia's myriad disputes -- a position that Russel reiterated.
Concerns have been rising over the South China Sea. Philippine President Benigno Aquino, in an interview with The New York Times, called on world leaders not to "appease" China and drew a parallel to the 1938 decision to give Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler's Germany.
Japan's Asahi Shimbun recently reported that China has drafted proposals for an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, similar to a move in November over the East China Sea that sent tensions soaring with Tokyo.
China denied the report, accusing "right-wing forces" in Japan of playing up tensions. The state-run Xinhua news agency separately attacked Aquino, saying his remarks showed him to be an "amateurish politician who was ignorant both of history and reality."
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