US, China seek to play down rivalry

2012-07-12 11:51

Phnom Penh - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi pledged on Thursday to work more closely together after talks designed to soothe their countries' often spiky relations. After a meeting in Cambodia, Clinton sought to highlight areas of common interest such as disaster relief and disease control, which she said were "an important signal that the US and China not only can, but will work together in Asia."

Yang said "China and US relations have continued to make progress this year", adding both sides had agreed to "enhance our dialogue... to continue to expand our common ground".

The display of togetherness on the sidelines of a regional Asian security meeting came despite constant friction in the world's most significant bilateral relationship, which is linked to China's economic and military rise.

There have been concerns the US's new foreign policy "pivot" to focus on Asia, where it hopes to counter China's enormous clout, could antagonise Beijing ahead of a leadership transition later this year.

Clinton had been expected in Cambodia in conciliatory mood. At the same Asian summit in 2010, she had angered China by saying the US had a "national interest" in the disputed South China Sea.

China claims essentially all of the South China Sea, while Taiwan and ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims in the waters, causing regular diplomatic flare ups.

These disputes have been the biggest issue at the ASEAN Regional Forum and a new spat between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea on Wednesday provided an ominous background for Thursday's talks.

Clinton said earlier on Thursday that nations should settle their territorial disputes "without coercion, without intimidation, without threats, and without use of force."

She again urged progress on the long-stalled code of conduct for the South China Sea to avoid "confusion and even confrontation" over shipping and fishing rights in the resource-rich waterway which is home to key shipping lanes.

There are little signs of movement on the code, however, with Southeast Asian nations in regional bloc ASEAN divided over what should be included and China apparently in no mood to begin discussions, diplomats say.

China said on Wednesday it would only begin negotiating the code with ASEAN "when conditions are ripe".

"The qualifying statement - when the time is ripe - means that planned talks in September (to advance on formulating a code) are unlikely to take place," one Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The Philippines is leading a push for ASEAN to unite to propose a code of conduct based on a UN law on maritime boundaries that would delineate the areas of the sea belonging to each country.

Other countries, led by staunch China ally Cambodia, are pushing back in a bid to avoid antagonising Beijing, which wants all territorial disputes to be settled bilaterally and rejects "internationalising" the issue.

Analysts say Clinton is trying to balance support for US allies Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam - all angered by China's recent perceived aggression in contested seas - with efforts to keep Beijing onside.

Japan lodged a formal complaint with China on Wednesday over their dispute and summoned the Chinese ambassador, while Beijing said the remote islands "have always been China's territory since ancient times".

Japan refers to the islands in the East China Sea as Senkaku and sees a Japanese family as the owners, while China calls them the Diaoyu.

The islands are covered by a US-Japan security pact dating back to 1960, but Washington is keen for the issue of ultimate sovereignty resolved "through peaceful means".

Analysts say the unexpected confrontation over the islands in the East China Sea will further drive neighbouring countries anxious about China's rise into the United States' orbit.

"The Chinese huff and bluff with Japan does not augur well," said Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer, who runs a consultancy. "China's actions have certainly pushed the Philippines towards Washington."

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