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Kerry urges talks between China and Philippines on South China Sea

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By Joanna Gill  with Reuters
Kerry urges talks between China and Philippines on South China Sea

Wading into the South China Sea dispute, US Secretary of State John Kerry has said he backs the resumptions of talks between China and the Philippines over the disputed region, as he met with his Filipino counterpart in Manila.

It comes after an international ruling rejected China’s claims in the waters.

“What we want to do is urge people to not try to build up the tensions. Don’t take provocative actions, leave the space here for people to be able to find a way forward that meets the needs of the region, of the nations and also respects people’s rights and obligations.

“The decision itself is a binding decision but we’re not trying to create a contradiction, we’re trying to create a solution – mindful of the rights of people that are established under the law.”

The ruling

In a case brought by the Philippines, a UN tribunal ruled against China, deeming its territorial claims ‘invalid’. China has rejected the July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in the Hague.

China claims almost all of the area, through which almost 5 trillion euros worth of trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to the disputed waters.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked Kerry to support bilateral talks with Manila when they met in Laos on Monday.

At an ASEAN meeting on the same day, the bloc dropped any reference to the UN ruling in its joint statement. Filipino Foreign Minister Yasay was quick to downplay the result as a ‘diplomatic win’ for China and emphasised the dispute was between Manila and Beijing.

“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.

Beijing has made clear it would negotiate its claims with Manila without acknowledging the tribunal’s ruling.

US military presence

Beijing blames the US military presence in the region for stoking tensions, and protesters also want American troops out. Hundreds took to the streets to protest Kerry’s visit.

“The US is doing a lot of double talk here in Asia. It pretends to be neutral but it really wants to contain China and establish its own dominance in the region,” protest leader, Renato Reyes told a reporter.

While the US calls for diplomacy to resolve the dispute, activists consider that military operations in the region threaten to complicate the South China Sea issue.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice, on a visit to China this week, told Chinese officials the US military operations were intended to contribute to ‘peace and stability’ in the South China Sea.

New president

Kerry is the first foreign secretary to meet the country’s newly elected president Rodrigo Duterte. He is expected to discuss the UN ruling and how to move forward with negotiations, according to a US official.

“I expect the conversation to include more exploration on the question of what a constructive, positive and peaceful and lawful path forward looks like,“ the U.S. official said.

Duterte has already appointed former President Fidel Ramos to visit Beijing and begin informal talks, the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday. During his election campaign Duterte said he favoured talks, but since taking office has faced pressure to take a stronger line.