US, China trade warnings on South China Sea

NUSA DUA, November 16, 2011 (AFP) - The United States and China appeared headed Wednesday for a confrontation over the South China Sea at this week's East Asia Summit, as they traded warnings over the territorial dispute.

China has caused disquiet in Washington and Asian capitals with its broad claims over the South China Sea, which encompasses vital shipping lanes and is believed to sit atop vast oil and mineral reserves.

The US has signalled it will raise the issue at this week's talks on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, despite Beijing insisting it is not an appropriate topic for discussion.

And US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday on a visit to the Philippines, which along with Vietnam has complained China is becoming more aggressive in staking its claims, that threats were unacceptable.

"Any nation with a claim has a right to exert it, but they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion," she said.

As the United States rolls out a diplomatic campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power, including stationing Marines in Australia, Clinton gave clear backing to the Philippines -- a vocal proponent of challenging China on the maritime dispute.

"Let me say, the United States will always be in the corner of the Philippines and we will stand and fight with you," she said.

China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the region which is a conduit for more than one-third of the world's seaborne trade and half its traffic in oil and gas.

The dispute has rumbled on for years but tensions have erupted anew in recent times, with the Philippines and Vietnam saying that Chinese vessels had harassed their ships and cut exploration cables.

Southeast Asian nations appreciate US support, but Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said they do not want to get "caught between the competing interests" of major powers at the East Asia Summit.

"We just hope that any discussion will be done in a way that... promotes peace and harmony in the region," he told AFP.

Beijing, which prefers to negotiate individually with its weaker neighbours, on Tuesday said the South China Sea should not be up for discussion in Bali.

"The intervention of outside forces is not helpful for the settlement of the issue," China's assistant foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said.

"On the contrary it will only complicate the issue and sabotage peace and stability and development in the region," he said in an apparent reference to the United States, which is joining the East Asia Summit this year.

The US moved swiftly to defend President Barack Obama's right to raise the dispute.

"In the context of discussions about maritime security, the South China Sea will clearly be a concern," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters travelling with the president.

The Philippines welcomed the US support and said it would not back down on a campaign to build a united front against China over the territorial row at this week's summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The proposal has so far received a a lukewarm response from regional nations reluctant to antagonise Beijing, their top trading partner.

"We will just continue to do what we are doing... we won't abandon that," said Ramon Carandang, spokesman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino. "The fact that the Americans agree with our position is something that we find helpful.

"We knew exactly what to expect when we came up with this proposal... We understood from the beginning it would take some time for us to get everybody on board," he told reporters.

The foreign ministers of Malaysia and Cambodia said Tuesday that the initiative was not helpful, suggesting instead that the region should focus on a legally binding code of conduct, which has eluded agreement for years.