US, China face off over sea dispute

China appeared to be shedding some of its aggressive posture on the dispute related to the South China Sea at the just concluded East Asia Summit.

Last Updated: Nov 20, 2011, 00:31 AM IST

Washington: China appeared to be shedding
some of its aggressive posture on the dispute related to the
South China Sea at the just concluded East Asia Summit amid
opposition from most of the member nations to Beijing`s
approach to the issue, a top US official said on Saturday.

"One has to believe that the Chinese premier will go back
to Beijing with the sense that the center of gravity in the
Asia Pacific area is around the adherence to the principle of
the rule of law, peaceful resolution, and a constructive,
rules-based approach to the resolution of territorial
disputes," the senior US official told reporters travelling
with President Barack Obama, abroad Air Force One, on
condition of anonymity.

When 16 out of the 18 leaders attending the East Asia
Summit including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, raised the
issue of maritime security in South China Sea, Chinese Prime
Minister, Win Jiabao, initially stated that this is not the
forum to raise the issue, but quickly noted that his country
was in favour of peaceful resolution of this issue.

Cambodia and Burma were the only two countries that did
not raise the issue.

"He (Jiabao) affirmed that China wants this issue
resolved peacefully, and volunteered that China had committed
to that in the original declaration of conduct.

He then went on to say, as we`ve heard the Chinese say
before in the ASEAN regional forum and elsewhere, that there
really isn`t a problem because China, after all, protects the
sea lanes in the South China Sea; that China goes to great
pains to ensure that the shipping lanes are safe and free,"
the official said.

"I would say that even though he (Jiabao) started off
maybe a little bit grouchy, by and large it was very measured
and interesting -- I would say a positive intervention."

Positive in the sense that he was not on a tirade, and he
did not use many of the more assertive formulas that we
frequently hear from the Chinese, particularly in public.

So to be more specific, began by saying that China
didn`t think that the EAS was an appropriate forum for a
discussion of this issue."

"He said that he had not wanted the subject of South
China Sea to be raised, but that since it had been, he would
respond.

He then went on to say that China shares the desire
articulated by the ASEAN countries, for a cooperative process
to reach a code of conduct on the South China Sea," said the
senior US official.

"Now, what struck me about that statement is not what
he said, but what he didn`t say.

Typically, the Chinese public posture has been to be
vaguely positive about the idea of reaching a code of conduct,
but then to qualify it by saying, at an appropriate time and
when the circumstances are propitious. He conspicuously
omitted both of those caveats," he said.

"I don`t think anyone, including the ASEANs, ever knew
what "appropriate circumstances" or "propitious circumstances"
meant.

In any event, that seems to have -- at least in the
context of the discussion today, which was, after all, the
highest level, broadest strategic discussion of the South
China Sea anywhere to date -- those qualifiers and caveats
were conspicuously absent," the official said.

"Another dog that didn`t bark was when he went on to say
that China believed that the disputes should be resolved
between the states or the interested parties directly.

What he didn`t say, and that -- what we invariably have
heard from the Chinese, was the word "bilaterally".

Now, here, too, I can`t say that the Chinese have
abandoned their position that the South China Sea competing
claims need to be resolved one-on-one, "mano a mano," China
versus each one of the small other claimants.

They may not be abandoning that position, but he didn`t
say it. And he made his statement on the heels of the repeated
point by other leaders, that there needed to be a process
among the claimants for a peaceful resolution," the official
said.

"He affirmed that China wants this issue resolved
peacefully, and volunteered that China had committed to that
in the original declaration of conduct.

He then went on to say, as we`ve heard the Chinese say
before in the ASEAN regional forum and elsewhere, that there
really isn`t a problem because China, after all, protects the
sea lanes in the South China Sea; that China goes to great
pains to ensure that the shipping lanes are safe and free,"
said the Senior Administration official.

The development on South China Sea at the East Asia
Summit, the official said, is a clear manifestation of an
overwhelming consensus among ASEAN and the other participants
in the East Asia Summit about the principles that Obama has
articulated throughout.

"This was spontaneous combustion, and not artifice.
These leaders were speaking openly and on their own behalf.
I think it was constructive," the official said.

PTI