Bilateral talks solution to sea row, Chinese official tells PH
Speaking at the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual forum bringing together top defense officials, diplomats and leaders, Austin lobbied for support for Washington’s vision of a “free, open and secure Indo-Pacific within a world of rules and rights” as the best course to counter increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region.
Chinese officials, however, reiterated China’s commitment to the region’s “development and prosperity” but maintained that Taiwan and the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters were “an inalienable and indisputable part of China’s sovereign territories.”
The US has been expanding its activities around the Indo-Pacific to counter sweeping territorial claims from China, including regularly sailing through and flying over the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea.
“We are committed to ensuring that every country can fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” he said. “And every country, large or small, must remain free to conduct lawful maritime activities.
He said the US is also committed to deterring North Korea’s missile threat and China’s claims on Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy that Beijing says is its territory, and said Washington has been stepping up defense planning, coordination and training with partner nations in the region.
“To be clear, we do not seek conflict or confrontation,” he said. “But we will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion.”
Chinese Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng, a senior member of the delegation accompanying Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu, accused Austin of “overtly or covertly making false accusations against China” in his address.
Speaking with reporters after Austin spoke, Jing alleged the US has been “deceiving and exploiting” Asia-Pacific nations to advance its self-interests to preserve “its dominant position” in the region.
He suggested that Washington has been holding on to alliances that are “remnants of the Cold War” and establishing new pacts, like the Aukus agreement with Britain and Australia and the “Quad” grouping with Australia, India and Japan “to divide the world into ideologically-driven camps and provoke confrontation.”
Jing, who took no questions, said that by contrast, “China is committed to the region’s development and prosperity.”
Jing accused the US of hollowing out the One China policy, accusing Washington of supporting Taiwanese separatists without citing any evidence, and reiterating Beijing’s claim that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s sovereign territory.”
“There’s no room for us to concede or compromise,” he said.
He added that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and the adjacent waters.”
Li, who became China’s defense minister in March, declined Austin’s invitation to talk on the sidelines of the conference, though the two did shake hands before sitting down at opposite sides of the same table together as the forum opened Friday.
Austin said, however, that “a cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement.”
Austin sought to assure China that the US remained “deeply committed” to the longstanding One China policy, which recognizes Beijing as the government of China but allows informal relations with Taiwan, and continues to “categorically oppose unilateral changes to the status quo from either side.”
He added that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had served to underline how dangerous the world would be if big countries were able to “just invade their peaceful neighbors with impunity.”
“Conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable,” Austin said. “Deterrence is strong today — and it’s our job to keep it that way. The whole world has a stake in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
Li, who was named defense minister in March, is under American sanctions that are part of a broad package of measures against Russia — but predate its invasion of Ukraine — that was imposed in 2018 over Li’s involvement in China’s purchase of combat aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.
The sanctions, which broadly prevent Li from doing business in the US, do not prevent him from holding official talks, American defense officials have said.
Austin reiterated calls that Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made in his opening address at the forum for China to engage in regular, direct communications to help prevent any possible conflict.
“For responsible defense leaders, the right time to talk is anytime,” Austin said. “The right time to talk is every time. And the right time to talk is now.
Jing said, however, that lines of communication needed to be based upon “mutual respect.”
“But the US has been calling for communications on one hand and undermining China’s interests and concerns on the other,” he said.
The US has noted that since 2021 — well before Li became defense minister — China has declined or failed to respond to more than a dozen requests from the US Defense Department to talk with senior leaders, as well as multiple requests for standing dialogues and working-level engagements.
In Manila, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong said China was willing to discuss with the Philippines the ongoing sea dispute.
Sun made the statement in a meeting with Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba in Beijing on May 26.
Mamba himself disclosed this on Saturday during an interview with The Manila Times following the arrival of participants in the first leg of a nationwide peace caravan in Tuguegarao City.
China and the Philippines have conflicting claims over parts of the South China Sea which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea as it falls within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and was affirmed by an arbitral ruling in 2016.
The Philippines has long insisted that disputes be settled through multilateral discussions involving other claimant countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Mamba said Sun pointed out the need to settle the maritime issue bilaterally and that “no one should meddle in the discussion.”
“Because it is a dispute between China and the Philippines only the two countries should talk,” Mamba quoted Sun as saying.
Mamba said Sun stressed that China is open to agreements that would benefit both countries.
“We talked for one and a half hours,” said Mamba. “He asked me to relay messages to the President (Ferdinand Marcos Jr.). This is why I am making a report now.”
He said Sun stressed that China and the Philippines are neighbors, and “that is permanent” and “we chart our own destiny together as neighbors.”
The Chinese official also stressed during their meeting that the Taiwan issue is “an internal affair” of China and therefore no outsider should meddle.
“He also stressed that as long [as] the EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) sites are there [in various parts of the Philippines], China does not want this,” said Maba quoting Sun, warning that such a situation would “force China to be your (Filipinos) enemy.”
Sun said that China was ready to work with the Philippines to “uphold justice, focus development and deepen cooperation to boost modernization between the two countries.”
Mamba was one of the local chief executives who has been vocal against the establishment of “EDCA sites” as agreed between the Philippines and the US. Cagayan was one of the provinces where at least two EDCA sites would be established that would allow the US to store assets and artillery and use them to defend the Philippines if attacked.
The US has reinforced its alliance with the Philippines, holding the largest “Balikatan” or shoulder-to-shoulder military exercises in the country highlighted by its display of superior firepower, and getting visits from Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Austin.
Japan, South Korea and Australia have also offered to hold naval exercises with the Philippines in the disputed waters.
‘Gateway and bridge’
“Sun also welcomed Cagayan province to forge good ties with the Chinese provinces and cities to share experiences, learn from each other and promote common development,” said Mamba.
During their meeting, Mamba said he told Sun that Cagayan was willing to become a “gateway and bridge” for exchanges and cooperation between the two countries.
He said his visit to China was made on the invitation of the Chinese government.
Mamba was accompanied by a 40-man delegation composed of several Cagayan mayors and other local government officials during the trip.
“Even before the pandemic, I really wanted to go to China to look into the poverty alleviation program of their government there,” he said.
“They told me once China opens up [after the pandemic], I will be one of the priorities,” Mamba said.
He said he was the keynote speaker during the China-Asean Forum on Sustainable Development held in Shen Zhang Province.
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