CHINA and Vietnam should withdraw their vessels and oil rig from the disputed waters in the South China Sea to make room for diplomacy to reduce the escalating tensions, the United States has said.
"We do have a problem with blanket assertions by both Vietnam and China that their claims are indisputable," Mr Daniel Russel, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, told select journalists yesterday in a conference call from Yangon, where he attended meetings related to the Asean Regional Forum.
"The issue is one of behaviour, not absolute rights, and the problem with the deployment of the rig in part is that it was done at a time of heightened tensions following a series of other troubling confrontations at sea," he said.
The senior US official was speaking two days after China's Foreign Ministry presented its case for sovereignty over the Paracels, based on historical grounds, such as ancient naval expeditions and latter day evidence such as Vietnamese maps describing the isles with Chinese names.
Mr Russel noted that Vietnam has claimed sovereignty of the Paracels for a long time. Moreover, it had been developing oil and gas reserves in an area where it had formally declared an Exclusive Economic Zone that derives from its mainland coast.
"Both China and Vietnam should remove all their ships, and China should remove the oil rig not because we take a position on who is right, but to create space for the diplomatic process to manage tensions," he said.
Vietnam has been dropping broad hints that it is preparing to take its case to the United Nations.
Yesterday, Chinese state media said Beijing had sent a position paper to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon on Monday, alleging that Vietnam rammed Chinese vessels more than 1,400 times near oil drilling operations in the South China Sea.
This came after Vietnam released dramatic footage showing a large Chinese ship ramming one of its fishing boats, which then sank.
Xinhua quoted China's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations Wang Min as saying in the position paper that Vietnam had "illegally and forcefully disrupted the Chinese operation".
Mr Russel said China should use the opportunity presented by the international tribunal on the Law of the Seas to participate in arbitration proceedings over the sea dispute. The tribunal, which is acting on a request from the Philippines, has said it would give China time until December to submit clarifications on its claims.
"This opens the door to the removal of ambiguity regarding China's claims that has fuelled tensions and uncertainty in the region," said Mr Russel, who visited Vietnam before.
China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, has coldly said it would not respond to the tribunal.
Another idea Mr Russel put forth to his Asean counterparts in Yangon was that while Asean and China worked on their Code of Conduct, each claimant state could identify behaviour in others that they find provocative, and voluntarily avoid doing so themselves. For example, they could pledge to not occupy any of the land features in the South China Sea that appear to be unoccupied.
"The point I tried to make is that while they work at making progress on a long-time Code of Conduct, the pace of incidents in the South China Sea is going up, and going up quickly. There are signs of large-scale reclamation projects in the South China Sea, construction of military features and so on," he added, naming no nation.
Mr Russel said the US would continue to be outspoken in criticising and condemning activities that it saw as destabilising the region.
"Coercion and threat of force as mechanisms for advancing territorial claims are simply unacceptable," he said.