Jul. 27 – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks on Friday regarding the longstanding South China Sea territorial dispute have garnered a strong rebuke from the powers that be in Beijing, who place the region’s hundreds of islands within China’s “core interests” alongside the likes of Taiwan and Tibet.
The islands of the South China Sea are seen as an integral part of China’s expanding naval ambitions, but the territory is also believed to hold abundant oil and natural gas reserves beneath its shallow seafloor.
Speaking at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Vietnam on Friday, Clinton called the dispute “a leading diplomatic priority” for the United States and voiced her country’s willingness to mediate a resolution in a well orchestrated move that appeared to have the backing of many Southeast Asian nations.
“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,” Clinton said. She added that the United States supports “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.”
China’s Foreign Ministry posted a statement on its web site on Monday saying that Clinton’s “seemingly fair” comments are “virtually an attack on China” and that there is “no problem” with the freedom of navigation and security in the region.
“What outcome can there be if the issue is internationalized and multi-lateralized?” China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, according to the ministry’s statement. “It can only make matters worse and more difficult to solve.”
China has rejected any attempts to introduce a multi-lateral platform for solving the territorial issues of the South China Sea and maintains that any solution will have to come through bilateral talks directly with Beijing.
“Channels of discussion are there, and they are open and smooth,” Yang claims.
State-run media outlets in China have also been quick to question U.S. intentions, accusing Washington of “serving its own ulterior motives” and “attempting to coerce Southeast Asian nations into blowing out of proportions the South China Sea issue.”
“Asia is rising and we have our own dignity,” Yang said. “Asian countries can treat each other with equality and mutual respect, and we can address each others’ concerns properly.”
In actuality, tensions have been escalating once again between China and Vietnam, who have previously fought over the disputed area, since Beijing announced plans to develop tourism on the Paracel Islands earlier this year. China assumed full control over the Paracels after a 1974 conflict with Vietnam and the two nations fought another brief skirmish in 1988 over the Spratly Islands to the south.
Clinton’s announcement on Friday is seen to be a significant win for many of China’s smaller neighbors who lay claim to portions of the South China Sea, as they believe that they can have more leverage in territorial discussions with China under an international format.
In addition to China, the other regions that lay claim to at least a portion of the roughly 200 scattered keys, isles, and atolls that make up the South China Sea’s Spratly and Paracel Island groups include Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. China also claims areas of the South China Sea which Brunei and Indonesia assert are legally within their territorial waters.