China wants US to help ease territorial tensions

Some see remark as a softening of its insistence on non-interference

AHEAD of a key bilateral meeting to boost cooperation and manage differences, China has said it wants the United States to help reduce tensions caused by territorial disputes in the region.

Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told reporters yesterday that Beijing wants Washington to "do more to contribute" in lowering tensions arising from the disputes.

On the South China Sea disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, he said: "The US should do more to contribute to a proper settlement of the issue."

Mr Zheng also urged the US to "send correct instead of wrong signals and do more to contribute to the cooling of the situation" in the East China Sea where Beijing is locked in a dispute with Tokyo over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

Some view Mr Zheng's remarks - made at a briefing about the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) set to take place in Washington next Wednesday - as a softening of Beijing's insistence on non-interference in its maritime spats with neighbours.

Others even deem it as a signal China is open to the US taking a more active role in resolving the disputes, perhaps even helping to initiate multilateral negotiations.

But the University of Denver's Sino-US expert Zhao Suisheng said bilateral talks with each claimant-state remain China's preferred mechanism, based on his discussions with Chinese officials.

Also, many in China still believe the US has been quietly encouraging claimants like the Philippines to adopt more aggressive actions towards China, he added.

"The remarks are thus aimed at getting the US to stop interfering in the disputes," Prof Zhao told The Straits Times.

The SED began in 2009 as a platform to manage disputes between the world's two largest economies and to boost cooperation on global and regional issues.

This year, relationship-building is a priority too, given the new faces on both sides.

The US delegation will be led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, both appointed this year.

China is sending State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Vice-Premier Wang Yang, who took their new posts in March and will helm the dialogue's strategic and economic tracks respectively.

Apart from territorial disputes, trade, climate change, North Korea's nuclear ambitions, and cyber security are likely to figure high on the agenda at SED too.

Cyber security has become a top issue for both sides amid allegations of military-backed cyber hacking by the Chinese on American firms and government agencies. China, too, claims to be a victim of cyber attacks from the US.

Also, the escapades of former National Security Agency contract worker Edward Snowden - who fled last month to Hong Kong, then Russia, after exposing the US surveillance programme - have made it more urgent for both sides to build a rules-based mechanism in boosting cyber security, say observers.

But many downplay the saga's impact on the SED, citing the warming ties since the high-profile, straight-talking summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama in California last month.

Yesterday, Mr Zheng said China is ready to discuss with the US ways to strengthen cyber security at the dialogue, which will see the first meeting of a cyber security taskforce set up last month.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg