VIENTIANE (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday he supported the resumption of talks between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea, following an international court ruling against Beijing over the dispute earlier this month.
China did not participate in and has refused to accept the July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, based in The Hague, in which U.S. ally Manila won an emphatic legal victory.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had asked Kerry to lend his support for bilateral talks to restart between Manila and Beijing in a meeting between the two in the Laos capital of Vientiane on Monday.
“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.”
The court ruling has exacerbated tensions between the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which are pulled between their desire to assert their sovereignty while fostering ties with an increasingly assertive Beijing.
China scored a diplomatic victory on Monday when ASEAN dropped any reference to the ruling from a joint statement at the end of the bloc’s foreign ministers’ meeting in the face of resolute objections from Cambodia, China’s closest ASEAN ally.
Kerry, who was due to travel to the Philippines later on Tuesday, said he would encourage Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to engage in dialogue and negotiations with China when the two meet in Manila on Wednesday.
Duterte has already appointed former President Fidel Ramos to visit Beijing and begin informal talks to resolve the dispute, a Philippine Foreign Ministry official said on Tuesday.
Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay told reporters in Vientiane that the dispute was not between China and the United States but between China and the Philippines.
“We would like to pursue bilateral relationships in so far as the peaceful resolution of the dispute is concerned that is between the China and the Philippines. The others are not concerned with that dispute,” Yasay told reporters.
Wang, who met Kerry on the sidelines of the ASEAN gathering in Laos, said on Tuesday he would welcome Ramos’ visit.
The Chinese foreign minister also told his U.S. counterpart that China and ASEAN had agreed the dispute should get back on to the “correct” track of being resolved by direct talks with the parties concerned, according to a foreign ministry statement released on Tuesday.
China “hopes the United States side takes actual steps to support the resumption of talks between China and the Philippines, and supports the efforts of China and ASEAN to maintain regional peace and stability”, Wang said.
Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.
China has repeatedly blamed the United States for stoking tensions in the region through its military patrols, and of taking sides in the dispute, accusations Washington denies.
In an address to foreign ministers, including Kerry, at the gathering in Vientiane, Wang criticized the United States, Japan and Australia for a joint statement on the issue they released late on Monday.
The statement “continued to hype up the South China Sea issue and play up tensions,” he said. “Now is the time we will test whether you are protectors of peace or agitators.”
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, a senior U.S. administration official said at the end of a visit to China by National Security Adviser Susan Rice that she had emphasized all parties should take steps to reduce tensions and use the ruling to reinvigorate regional diplomacy.
Rice also told Chinese officials, including a top military officer, that U.S. military operations were designed to contribute to peace and stability, including in the South China Sea, the U.S. official said.
“Those operations are lawful, they will continue, they’ve been longstanding, and again they’re designed to impart confidence and stability,” he added.
Kerry had said earlier that China’s dismissal of the international court ruling as “illegitimate” presented a challenge when the international community, including the United States, sees it as legally binding and a matter of law.
“So we still have a task ahead of us ... which is to try to work going forward to make sure that we are resolving the issues through diplomacy and the rule of law,” he said.
Admiral John Richardson, the head of U.S. naval operations, said at a news conference in Washington that he would be very concerned if China were to declare an air defense zone over the South China Sea or carry out reclamation activity around the Scarborough Shoal after the international court ruling.
Richardson said he raised the issue with Chinese officials during his visit to China last week.
Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Michael Martina in Vientiane and Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Idrees Ali in Washington; editing by Alex Richardson and Richard Chang