US Not ‘Neutral’ in South China Sea Disputes: Top US Diplomat
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington underway in the South China Sea.
Image Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

US Not ‘Neutral’ in South China Sea Disputes: Top US Diplomat

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The United States is not neutral when it comes to following international law in the South China Sea and will come down forcefully to ensure that all parties adhere to the rules, Washington’s top diplomat for East Asia said Tuesday.

The United States has repeatedly said that while it takes no position on competing sovereignty claims over disputed land features in the South China Sea, it does want these maritime claims to be advanced in accordance with international law and without the use of coercion (See: “The Case for a Bolder US South China Sea Policy“). That hedged position has led some to incorrectly read the U.S. stance on the issue as being ‘neutral,’ with China in particular accusing Washington of ‘taking sides.’

But in response to a question by a Chinese participant on perceived U.S. ‘neutrality’ in the South China Sea, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel firmly clarified at a think tank conference in Washington, D.C. that this neutrality only extended to the competing claims, rather than the way in which the disputes were resolved.

“We are not neutral when it comes to adhering to international law. We will come down forcefully when it comes to following the rules,” Russel said during a keynote speech delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In this vein, Russel said in his speech that the United States was currently encouraging relevant parties in the South China Sea to create the atmosphere and conditions necessary to manage the disputes peacefully, diplomatically and lawfully despite escalating tensions there partly caused by China’s assertive actions (See: “China’s Assertiveness Could Worsen, Japan Military Chief Warns“).

“We’re pushing the parties to revive the spirit of cooperation,” Russel said.

The focus, Russel said, would be on lowering the temperature and creating the breathing room necessary to pursue peaceful paths toward resolving disputes, such as negotiations and arbitration. He encouraged all actors – not just China – to cease actions that run contrary to this spirit, including reclaiming land, building facilities and militarizing features. Beijing has been engaging in an extensive land reclamation activities in the South China Sea to the alarm of claimants and outside actors (See: “The Truth About China’s South China Sea Land Reclamation Announcement“).

Russel said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would push for progress on this front at the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum, which will be held next month in Malaysia, this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“He’ll push for progress. This is an important priority,” Russel said.

On the first peaceful path to resolving disputes – bilateral negotiations – Russel acknowledged it was challenging to pursue this course under the current atmosphere. While not directly mentioning China by name, he noted that “absolutist” statements by certain countries that their claims were “indisputable” made going down this path even more challenging.

But he also said that there were several cases in the region where this had worked, including between Indonesia and the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, and Bangladesh and Myanmar.

“Hey, it can be done,” Russel argued.

On the second path – arbitration – Russel specifically referenced the Philippines ongoing case against China at the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. He stressed that regardless of the outcome, both Beijing and Manila had to abide by the court’s legally binding decision as they were both signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (See: “Does the Philippines South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?“).

“In keeping with the law, both China and the Philippines are obligated to follow the decision whether they like it or not,” Russel said.

In the meantime, Russel said that the United States would safeguard its own interests in various ways, including honoring its alliances and security commitments and aiding the development of effective regional organizations. This included taking steps such as investing in maritime domain awareness for coastal states and carrying out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea (See: “How Would the US Challenge China in the South China Sea?“).

“We the United States are obligated to protect U.S. interests,” Russel said.

Summarizing the essence of the U.S. position on the South China Sea disputes, Russel reiterated that it was not about rocks but about rules for the Asia-Pacific region.

“It’s really not about the rocks and the shoals. It’s about rules. It’s about the kind of neighborhood we all want to live in,” he said.

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