NAYPYITAW, Myanmar >> U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday urged China and its neighbors to take new steps to ease tensions over maritime disputes that many fear could spark conflict.
Under the proposal he presented, China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that have competing claims to territory in the South China Sea would voluntarily halt provocative actions.
Recent activity by several nations, particularly China, in disputed areas has heightened concerns about confrontation, which would destabilize the Asia-Pacific, interfere with international maritime commerce and roil the global economy.
"The United States and ASEAN have a common responsibility to ensure the maritime safety of critical global sea lanes and ports," Kerry told foreign ministers, including those from claimant states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, on the sidelines of an annual regional security forum.
"We need to work together to manage tensions in the South China Sea and manage them peacefully and also to manage them on a basis of international law," he said.
China contended that "someone" was distorting the level of tension in the region over the sea disputes.
ASEAN generally has backed U.S. suggestions on easing tensions, including endorsing the development of a binding code of conduct to govern activities involving conflicting claims. But China has resisted and progress on that code has been halting, if best, over the past several years.
Earlier Saturday, the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, presented an initiative that incorporated the American concept of a voluntary end to tension-producing activities.
"Tensions in the South China Sea have worsened in the past few months and continue to deteriorate," Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said. "All of us are seeing an increased pattern of aggressive behavior and provocative actions in the South China Sea, seriously threatening the peace, security, prosperity and stability in the region."
In addition to the immediate voluntary cessation of provocative acts, Manila’s plan calls for the speedy conclusion of the code of conduct as well as long-term arbitration over disputes that would eventual resolve the claims under the U.N. Law of the Sea.
As expected, China reacted coldly to the proposal, saying that the tensions were being overblown.
"Someone has been exaggerating or even playing up the so-called tension in the South China Sea," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters. "We do not agree with such a practice, and we call for vigilance in the motives behind them."
Wang, who later met with Kerry, was visibly annoyed that Kerry kept him waiting about 30 minutes for their discussion.
Among the recent provocative actions cited by the U.S. and ASEAN members was China’s deployment of a deep-sea oil rig in early May near the Paracel islands, which are claimed by both Hanoi and Beijing. Although the Chinese removed the rig two months later, the incident continues to rankle Vietnam.
Washington is concerned that while China’s withdrawal of the rig in mid-July had removed an irritant, it had left a legacy of anger and strained relations with Vietnam and likely raised serious questions among China’s other neighbors about its long-term strategy.
China says it has a historical right to most of the South China Sea and resents what it sees as U.S. meddling.