Obama aide to call for calm in S. China Sea on Beijing visit

Rice’s visit comes after international court ruling against China’s claims to waterway

WASHINGTON • National Security Adviser Susan Rice will urge Beijing to avoid escalation in the South China Sea next week, when she makes the highest-level US visit to China since an international court rejected its sweeping claims to the strategic waterway.

Even as Washington sought to keep a lid on the situation, Ms Rice has, in an interview, vowed that the US military would still “sail and fly and operate” in the South China Sea despite a Chinese warning that such patrols could end “in disaster”.

With less than six months left to President Barack Obama’s tenure, Ms Rice’s broader mission on her visit from tomorrow to Wednesday will be aimed at keeping overall ties between the world’s two largest economies, which she called “the most consequential relationship we have", on track at a time of heightened tensions.

“I’ll be there to advance our cooperation,” she said.

But the trip follows a July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that China has no historic title over South China Sea waters. Beijing has angrily rejected the verdict and pledged to pursue claims that conflict with those of several smaller neighbours.

NO NEGLECTING OTHERS

We don’t have the luxury as the world’s leading power to devote our attention to one region and ignore another.

US NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER SUSAN RICE, on how Washington would not let crises in other parts of the world distract from Mr Obama’s signature policy of “rebalancing” towards Asia.

But a senior US official said “ so far there has not been precipitous action” and Washington was hoping confrontation could be avoided. “We are not looking to do things that are escalatory,” another senior US official said. “And at the same time, we don’t expect that they (the Chinese) would deem it wise to do things that are escalatory.”

“I’ve been in communication with our Chinese counterparts over the last couple of weeks. We understand each other’s perspectives clearly,” Ms Rice said when asked what message she would deliver to the Chinese. “We’ll urge restraint on all sides.”

Ms Rice is expected to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping during her visit, and her agenda will include North Korea, economic issues and human rights.

But with the South China Sea issue looming large, Ms Rice said the US and China have “careful work to do to manage our differences”.

She also said the administration would not let crises in other parts of the world, from Syria to Turkey, distract from Mr Obama’s signature policy of “rebalancing” towards Asia. “We don’t have the luxury as the world’s leading power to devote our attention to one region and ignore another,” she added.

Her trip, which will include Beijing and Shanghai, will coincide with visits by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Laos and the Philippines, where he is expected to try to reassure South-east Asian partners of Washington’s commitment.

The US is also using quiet diplomacy to persuade claimants like the Philippines not to move aggressively to capitalise on The Hague ruling, US officials have said. How Washington handles the aftermath of the ruling is widely seen as a test of US credibility in a region where it is struggling to contain an increasingly assertive China.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2016, with the headline 'Obama aide to call for calm in S. China Sea on Beijing visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe