China called on Southeast Asian countries Thursday to resist “interference” from the United States in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, over which Washington has been ratcheting up diplomatic pressure lately.
Without identifying the U.S. by name, a statement from the Chinese embassy in Manila clearly took aim at recent rhetorical actions by the rival superpower on the issue of the contested waterway.
“[A] certain country outside the region is bent on interfering in the disputes in the South China Sea and the COC [Code of Conduct] consultations to serve its own geopolitical agenda. How to resist the interference is crucial for pushing forward the future consultations of COC,” the statement said.
For nearly two decades, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been negotiating a Code of Conduct, which would lay out guidelines for how claimants in the sea must behave. In 2002, member-states from the bloc and China signed a Declaration of Conduct in which they expressed their willingness to settle disputes in the maritime region peacefully.
During a meeting with his counterparts from the Philippines and other ASEAN countries last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington insisted on the rule of law and respect for sovereignty in the South China Sea, where “Beijing has pursued aggressive campaigns of coercion and environmental devastation.”
On Tuesday, David Stilwell, the American assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, criticized China for its “bullying behavior” and “forcing” nations in the region into making a choice over the waterway, where Beijing has been building artificial islands and militarizing atolls that it claims there.
In its statement, China reiterated its commitment to maintaining peace in the maritime region where it has disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
China also expressed its appreciation for Manila’s commitment to pushing the negotiations on the COC forward, adding it hoped they would be “finalized at the earliest.”
China’s claims disputed
Citing historical rights and the controversial Nine-Dash Line boundary that appears on Chinese maritime maps, Beijing has claimed ownership over the entire South China Sea, including in areas that effectively encroach on the exclusive economic zones of other countries.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague struck down China’s claims. The Philippines had gone to court to seek international intervention after Beijing effectively seized control of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in 2012.
On Thursday, Philippine government officials did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, for comment on the statement issued by the Chinese embassy.
However, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. did comment via Twitter on the ongoing negotiations over the Code of Conduct.
“China has my word on that and it will be a COC with which the rest of the world will be totally comfortable, friends and enemies alike,” Locsin said in a tweet Thursday.
Speaking at the ASEAN Regional Forum last week, Manila’s top diplomat said that the Philippines would “push as hard as it can for the conclusion of [an] effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.”
The Philippine government, Locsin said then, hoped to “make substantial headway” on the negotiations for a draft code before the chairmanship of the talks moves to Myanmar next year.
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