November 6, 2015 / 1:56 PM / 2 years ago

Europe warns against escalation in South China Sea dispute

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union made its strongest call yet for China and other Asian nations to resolve their dispute over the South China Sea, a position Brussels insists is neutral but that the United States is likely to welcome after pressing the bloc to speak up.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (R) speaks with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Robert C. Francis Jr., as Carter and Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (Not Pictured) visited the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, in this handout photograph taken and released on November 5, 2015. REUTERS/Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/Department of Defense/Handout

At a summit of EU and Asian foreign ministers, Beijing escaped any public admonishment over its construction and militarization of islands in the South China Sea but the EU’s foreign policy chief took a firm line in the bloc’s first public comments since Washington patrolled the area this month.

“We are committed to a maritime order based on the principles of international law,” Federica Mogherini told a news conference when asked about the dispute. “We oppose any attempt to assert territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion, force or any unilateral actions which would cause further friction,” she said.

The United States has been urging the European Union to speak more forcefully about what Washington worries is Beijing’s predatory approach to a waterway where Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines have rival claims.

But the European Union, despite its deep ties with the United States, has been reluctant to publicly criticize Beijing at a time when it is seeking up to $10 billion of Chinese investment in its new EU infrastructure fund to help revitalize the bloc’s weak economy.

A week after Washington sent a U.S. naval destroyer to underscore its freedom of navigation and challenge China’s claim to almost all the South China Sea, the European Union also faced the task of ensuring that the gathering of 50 Asian and European envoys was not completely overshadowed by the dispute.

The issue is so sensitive for Beijing that the EU-chaired summit could only produce a final summit statement that made no mention of the South China Sea, despite preparatory talks between Asian officials that diplomats described as very tense.

Placed on paragraph 22 of the 9-page statement, the 53 delegations agreed on the importance “of resolving maritime disputes through peaceful means.”

Continuing the modest language: “Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining peace, promoting maritime security and stability, safety and cooperation, freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce,” the statement said.

However, that was more than a summit of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) achieved earlier this week, attended by China and the United States. It failed to produce a final statement because delegations were unable to agree whether to refer to the South China Sea dispute.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year, but Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

China has dozens of naval and coastguard vessels in the South China Sea, experts say, adding that encounters with U.S. warships are likely to increase after U.S. officials said the navy would conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made islands about twice every three months.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter flew to a U.S. aircraft carrier navigating the South China Sea on Thursday, after the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, challenged territorial limits around Subi Reef, one of seven artificial islands built up by China in the past two years in the Spratly archipelago.

Beijing has rebuked Washington over the patrol while China’s navy commander has warned that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if the United States did not stop its “provocative acts”.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Toby Chopra

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