Kerry backs 'substantive code of conduct' for South China Sea

UNITED States Secretary of State John Kerry threw his support behind a "substantive code of conduct" to deal with overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, emphasising its importance in maintaining peace and stability in the region.

His comments yesterday came as the Philippines warned on Sunday of "increasing militarisation" due to the massive presence of Chinese military in the disputed waters and as Beijing-Manila ties are rapidly souring.

China has overlapping claims in the resource-rich sea with four Asean states: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

"As a Pacific nation, and a resident power, the United States has a national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded lawful commerce and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea," said Mr Kerry in his opening address at the Asean-US ministerial conference here.

"While we do not take a position on competing territorial claims over land features, we have a strong interest in the manners in which disputes of the South China Sea are addressed, and the conduct of the parties."

He voiced hope in seeing progress on a substantive code of conduct. Positive developments on the issue have been unfolding with Asean and China agreeing on Sunday to official consultations on the binding code of conduct to manage maritime disputes in September this year.

But he said in a clear reference to China: "Our actions are not intended to contain or to counterbalance any one country."

At a press briefing later, he said the US, Japan, South Korea and China were "absolutely united, absolutely firm in our insistence that the future with respect to North Korea must include denuclearisation".

He reiterated that North Korea must abide by its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions and commitments it made in 2005.

Regarding his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi yesterday, Mr Kerry said while the issue of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden came up, both focused on the "bigger issues" instead, like economic and security challenges.

"We have major, major issues with respect to North Korea and China is cooperating with us with respect to that, and... has helped to make a difference in that equation," he added.

"Life in international relationships is often complicated by the fact that you have many things to work on simultaneously," he noted. Washington had earlier criticised Beijing for allowing Snowden to leave Hong Kong despite a US request for his arrest.

Mr Kerry also addressed other issues, including the US' rebalancing towards Asia and reports that Washington had spied on its allies such as the European Union.

"I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs of national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security." He declined to comment further until he had "all the facts".

Mr Kerry will meet the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers today to discuss the Syrian crisis.

Separately, Norway yesterday signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-east Asia, an Asean-centred pact that bans the use of force to settle disputes.

esthert@sph.com.sg

limze@sph.com.sg