“We are concerned that a series of naval incidents in recent months has raised tensions in the region,” said John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, and John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate. “If appropriate steps are not taken to calm the situation, future incidents could escalate, jeopardising the vital national interests of the United States.”
Senator John Kerry.
VietNamNet Bridge - Two senior US senators have warned China that recent naval clashes with its neighbours in the South China Sea (East Sea) could jeopardise US “national interests” in the region, in comments likely to rankle Beijing.
Senator John Kerry.
The senators issued the warning, in a letter to Dai Bingguo, China’s top foreign policy official, ahead of a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers and their dialogue partners this week.
China is likely to see the comments as a provocation as they echo remarks by Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, last year that infuriated Beijing. Speaking at the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi last July, Mrs Clinton angered Beijing by saying the US had “a national interest in freedom of navigation . . . in the South China Sea”.
Mrs Clinton is due to speak at the same forum in Bali, Indonesia, this week, at a time when tensions in the South China Sea are higher than a year ago.
Vietnam and the Philippines have accused China of harassing fishing and surveying vessels and said Chinese behaviour has become more aggressive.
The East Sea includes vital sea lanes for most of north-east Asia’s oil imports and other trade with Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India and south-east Asia. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan claim all or parts of the area, but China’s claims are the most extensive.
The comments from the US senators follow a period when the Obama administration has publicly toned down criticism of China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the contested energy-rich waters.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue regional defence summit in Singapore in June, Robert Gates, then US defence secretary, disappointed some south-east Asian officials by taking a relatively soft public line on China, which partly reflected a desire not to harm improved military relations between the powers. However, Mr Gates reassured US allies in the region that Washington would maintain a “robust military engagement” in the region.
Since Hu Jintao, Chinese president, visited the US in January, the two countries have tried to manage their relationship better and not let disagreements derail dialogue.
Jin Canrong, an expert on US-China relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said: “The East Sea will for sure be a hot issue at the ARF, as Vietnam and the Philippines are keen to raise it. But I think we will not see a repetition of what we saw last year, with a shouting match between the US secretary of state and the Chinese foreign minister.”
Underscoring the mounting tensions, five Filipino lawmakers on Wednesday plan to fly to an island claimed by Manila in the disputed Spratlys archipelago, prompting the immediate ire of China.
China said on Tuesday that the mission “serves no purpose but to undermine peace and stability in the region and sabotage the China-Philippines relationship.
Both the Philippine government and the leadership of the country’s House of Representatives distanced themselves from the visit. A government spokesman said the move was unofficial and a private initiative of the lawmakers.
However, the politicians who organised the visit said they had secured the permission of the Philippine military commander in the area to fly a private aircraft to the island.