The United States supports bilateral talks between China and the Philippines, Reuters reports:
“The foreign minister said the time has come to move away from public tensions and turn the page,” Kerry told a news conference. “And we agree with that… no claimant should be acting in a way that is provocative, no claimant should take steps that wind up raising tensions.”
Kerry said he would encourage Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to engage in dialogue and negotiations with China when the two meet in Manila on Wednesday. Kerry is due to travel to the Philippines later on Tuesday.
Kerry’s remarks came after a meeting with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi in which Yi asked Kerry to encourage Manila to sit down with Beijing. But they were somewhat at odds with U.S. ally Japan’s comments yesterday. The Japan Times:
In a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida urged Beijing to comply with an international tribunal ruling that denied China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
Kishida conveyed Japan’s concern about the situation in the South China Sea and said he hopes any action that could heighten tension in the region will be avoided, according to a Japanese official.
In response during their meeting Monday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China’s position on the issue, the official said.
He also demanded that Japan be careful of what it says about South China Sea matters, calling for Tokyo not to repeat mistakes, according to China News Service, a news agency.
The Hague’s ruling was unequivocal: China does not have the territorial claims it says it does because the “islands” it claims do not qualify as islands. Yet the court did not uphold the Philippines’ rights to the territory either, but rather said that China’s behavior was interfering was the sovereign rights of Manila to fish and conduct other activities in international waters. The court also accused China of illegally damaging coral features.
Early reports from when Beijing proposed talks in early July gave us an idea of what sorts of issues could be negotiated:
Negotiations between China and the Philippines could cover “issues such as joint development and cooperation in scientific research if the new government puts the tribunal’s ruling aside before returning to the table for talks”, the China Daily said.
Under Deng Xiaoping, China discussed approaching territorial disputes in the Diaoyus/Senkakus using this framework. But does that make sense now? For one, China has become far more powerful than its regional rivals and has even surpassed Japan. For another, Beijing has gotten a lot more aggressive and is perceived as being less trustworthy than it was in the 1980s. But the most important difference here is that the features in the South China Sea are not legally considered islands, whereas the disputed features with Japan are clearly islands. It makes sense that Japan wouldn’t want to set a precedent for negotiations that China might try to apply in the East China Sea. But unlike in the East China Sea, much of the territory in the South China Sea legally cannot be, according to the Hague, up for grabs.
The distinction between Tokyo’s position and Washington’s highlights the challenge for the United States. No one wants to escalate this situation into armed conflict, and diplomacy is undoubtedly the preferred recourse. But it is not obvious what exactly there is to be negotiated.
Does Washington believe negotiations should be about “joint development” and “scientific research”? From where we stand, it seems clear that China won’t ultimately be satisfied with such limited terms. We’ll be watching closely to see how this plays out—and to see if the State Department clarifies its position.