Secretary of State John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart laid out diverging positions regarding the South China Sea on Tuesday, indicating that annual talks between the United States and China had done little to bridge the differences over what has become one of the most volatile issues in their relationship.
In Beijing, a senior American official also revealed that President Barack Obama had warned President Xi Jinping of China during a meeting in March about the maritime friction and about Washington’s obligations to a regional ally, the Philippines.
On Tuesday, at the end of what is called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Kerry praised the talks as an “essential mechanism” to air differences and nurture cooperation.
But comments both by Kerry and by State Councilor Yang Jiechi of China suggested that their governments remained far apart on the continuing disputes in the South China Sea. China has laid claim to many islands and outcrops across the sea that are also claimed by Southeast Asian countries, notably the Philippines and Vietnam.
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“I reiterated America’s fundamental support for negotiations, and a peaceful resolution based on the rule of law, as well as, obviously, our concern about any unilateral steps by anyone, whichever country, to alter the status quo,” Kerry said during a joint appearance with Chinese officials in the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing.
After Kerry spoke, Yang, who steers Chinese foreign policy and is senior to the foreign minister, said China remained adamantly opposed to an arbitration case brought by the Philippines to assert its claims in the sea.
A court in The Hague, Netherlands, is expected to deliver its decision in the case soon, but Beijing has said it will not accept the result.
“This has not changed and will not change,” Yang said of China’s opposition to the case. He repeated China’s position that it is willing to negotiate over the disputes, but only with each individual country holding a rival claim, rather than collectively.
“The islands of the South China Sea have been Chinese territory since antiquity,” Yang said. “China has every right to uphold its territorial rights and legitimate maritime rights and interests.”
The Obama administration has urged China to negotiate with Southeast Asian nations collectively to solve the disputes, and it has warned Beijing against its energetic development of reefs and outcrops into artificial islands with military facilities.
The United States recently sent military ships and planes near some of those islands to make the point that it would insist on freedom of navigation throughout the area, and Beijing bristled at the gesture.
The South China Sea issue came up early in the meetings, when the U.S. warned China against any action in the waterway involving U.S. treaty obligations to the Philippines.
The Philippines has long claimed Scarborough Shoal, an outcrop off its western coast. In 2012, China took over the shoal.