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Stalemate in Kerry's China talks

Published 16/05/2015

US Secretary of State John Kerry is urging China to ease tensions in the South China Sea
US Secretary of State John Kerry is urging China to ease tensions in the South China Sea

The United States and China remain deeply divided over Chinese activity in disputed areas of the South China Sea, as Beijing rejected US Secretary of State John Kerry's push for it to reduce tensions.

After meeting in the Chinese capital, both Mr Kerry and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed the importance of dialogue to resolve the competing claims, but neither showed any sign of bending in their positions over Chinese land reclamation projects that have alarmed the United States and China's smaller neighbours.

The US and most members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) want a halt to the projects, which they suspect are aimed at building islands and other land features over which China can claim sovereignty.

"We are concerned about the pace and scope of China's land reclamation in the South China Sea," Mr Kerry said, urging China to speed up talks with ASEAN on binding guidelines on how maritime activity in disputed areas should be handled. "And, I urged China, through Foreign Minister Wang, to take actions that will join with everybody in helping to reduce tensions and increase the prospect of diplomatic solutions."

"I think we agree that the region needs smart diplomacy in order to conclude the ASEAN-China code of conduct and not outposts and military strips," Mr Kerry told reporters at a joint news conference with Mr Wang.

But Mr Wang signalled that while China was prepared to talk, it would not back down on the construction which he said "is something that falls fully within the scope of China's sovereignty.

"The determination of the Chinese side to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock, and it is unshakeable," he said. "It has always been our view that we need to find appropriate solutions to the issues we have through communications and negotiations that we have among the parties directly concerned with peaceful and diplomatic means on the basis of respecting historical facts and international norms. This position will remain unchanged in the future."

Mr Wang added that the differences between China and the US could be managed "as long as we can avoid misunderstanding and, even more importantly, avoid miscalculation".

The Chinese claims and land reclamation projects have rattled the region where South China Sea islands and reefs are contested by China and five other Asian governments and activities have led to clashes, accompanied by nationalistic protests and occasional serious diplomatic implications.

The US says it takes no position on the sovereignty claims but insists they must be negotiated. Washington also says ensuring maritime safety and access to some of the world's busiest commercial shipping routes is a US national security priority.

China has bristled at what it sees as US interference in the region and wants to negotiate with the ASEAN countries individually, something those much smaller nations fear will not be fair.

Tomorrow Mr Kerry heads to Seoul where he will be meeting senior South Korean officials and deliver a speech on cyber security and related issues.

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