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Amid growing Asian storm, US seeks quieter touch with China over sea dispute

July 26, 2016

BEIJING - National Security Adviser Susan Rice was in Beijing on Monday to talk about the South China Sea, the scene of a deepening territorial dispute that pits China against some of Washington’s most important Southeast Asian allies.

But Rice did not talk about the South China Sea - at least not publicly.

The diplomatic sidestep was a clear sign of just how sensitive the standoff has become. For Beijing’s leaders, control of the South China Sea is a critical show of resolve. For the United States and its Asian allies, it marks a test of how much they can push back against China’s growing military and regional ambitions.

In the highest-level U.S. visit since an international tribunal issued a ruling earlier this month invalidating China’s expansive maritime claims, Rice met with President Xi Jinping, China’s state councilor, Yang Jiechi, and other senior officials. She alluded to “issues and challenges,” but avoided actual references to the long-simmering conflict.

In opening remarks before her talk with Xi, Rice played up interdependence and called the U.S.-China relationship “the most consequential in the world today.” Xi told Rice: China remains “strongly committed” to building good relations based upon the ideas of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

China asserts historic sovereignty over the South China Sea - also surrounded by the Philippines, Vietnam and other nations - and vows to ignore international rulings backing counter claims. Meanwhile, the United States and allies have become increasingly alarmed over Chinese land reclamation and construction on reefs and rocks, worried they could become footholds for military bases and disrupt shipping lanes.

The most pointed - if indirect - reference to the dispute came in an earlier meeting between Rice and Fan Changlong, a top Chinese general.

“We should be honest with ourselves that deep down in this relationship we’re still faced with obstacles and challenges,” Fan told Rice. “If we do not properly handle these factors it will very likely disturb and undermine this steady momentum of our military-to-military relationship.”

The meetings in Beijing coincided with Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Laos, where he met with Southeast Asian leaders and China’s foreign minister to begin delicate discussions about how to move forward after the divisive ruling.

In another display of the high stakes at play, the host of the talks, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, issued a statement that carefully avoided the July 12 court ruling against Beijing.

The international arbitration panel based in the Hague found there was no legal or historical basis for China’s claims to a vast swathe of one of the world’s most important waterways.

They also ruled that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by constructing artificial islands and had caused “permanent irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.”

China dismissed the ruling as “trash paper” and denounced the process as a “farce.” They have vowed to ignore the ruling altogether.

The United States now must find a way to support its Southeast Asian allies, particularly the Philippines, without completely alienating Beijing.

“The U.S. is trying to calm things down while at the same time encouraging support for the arbitration ruling,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

“They know China is super sensitive right now, so they are trying to handle it delicately.”

Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said Washington is “waiting for the dust to settle.”

“They want to see how the Philippines responds and what next steps China might take,” he said.

The Chinese response so far has been a mix of mostly symbolic moves, such as sending civilian aircraft to new airports in the South China Sea, and scathing rhetoric.

On the sidelines of a recent summit, China reportedly told the Philippines that Beijing was ready to negotiate if Manila ignored the ruling - an offer the Filipino foreign minister roundly rejected.

On Monday, the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, vowed to use the ruling as part of “ongoing efforts to pursue a peaceful resolution and management of our disputes.”

Members of the 10-country ASEAN group met over the weekend in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, for their most significant conclave since the tribunal decision was announced.

Over the weekend, Liu Zhenmin, China’s vice-minister of foreign affairs, made an apparent jab at the United States for interfering in Southeast Asian affairs.

ASEAN “should in particular guard against the intervention in regional cooperation by big powers outside the region,” he said, without citing a specific country.

The Washington Post’s Xu Yangjingjing contributed reporting from Beijing.

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