The US yesterday called on rivals in the disputed South China Sea to back up territorial claims with legal evidence — a challenge to China’s declaration of sovereignty over vast stretches of the region.
“We also call on all parties to clarify their claims in the South China Sea in terms consistent with customary international law,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at Asia’s largest security conference.
“Claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features,” she said.
The South China Sea row has taken center stage at this week’s meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum on the Indonesian island of Bali, where the US, China and Southeast Asian nations have discussed the future of the potentially resource-rich region.
Taiwan, China and four ASEAN members — the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam — all claim territory in the South China Sea, while Washington has irritated Beijing by declaring it also has a national interest at stake in ensuring freedom of navigation and trade.
China’s claim is the biggest and Beijing says it has had indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea since ancient times.
Beijing on Thursday agreed to take preliminary steps with its Southeast Asian neighbors to establish a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, a step Clinton said could ease tensions that have rattled the region as disputes between China, Vietnam and the Philippines heat up.
However, she indicated yesterday that the US would push for more clarity on the subject, suggesting that all nations involved should delineate their claims according to the 1982 international Law of the Sea.
The Philippines also said China’s claims had no validity under international law.
US officials said many of the national claims to territory in the region were exaggerated and that many nations had also preferred to legitimize claims based on historical precedent rather than land features.
Clinton said the US had no claim to the South China Sea and took no position on the relative merits of competing claims.
However, she said the US, as a maritime nation, did have an interest in ensuring that disputes were resolved peacefully and called on all countries involved to avoid exacerbating the situation.
Clinton said the recent surge in tensions over the South China Sea threatened regional peace, while warning against using force to solve the dispute.
“The United States is concerned that recent incidents in the South China Sea threaten the peace and stability on which the remarkable progress of the Asia Pacific region has been built,” Clinton said. “They should exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes,” she said.
A senior US official said Clinton’s move to invoke the Law of the Sea to assess claims could require many countries to dig for solid evidence to back up their territorial assertions.
The US itself has signed, but not ratified, the Law of the Sea.
However regional claimants do belong to the convention, although there remains no clear international procedure for adjudicating rival claims.