China: Stay out of it

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) gestures next to Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa

JAKARTA/BEIJING — China warned the United States not to get involved in South China Sea territorial disputes today as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Beijing pledging to pass on a strong message on the need to calm regional tension.

The last time Clinton visited the Chinese capital, plans to highlight improving US-China ties were derailed by a blind Chinese dissident whose dramatic flight to the US embassy exposed the deeply uneasy relationship.

The irritants this time are disputes over tiny islets and craggy outcrops in oil- and gas-rich areas of the South and East China Seas that have set China against US regional allies such as the Philippines and Taiwan.

As Clinton travelled back to Beijing today, US officials say the message is once again one of cooperation and partnership – and an important chance to compare notes during a year of political transition.

But the unease remains, sharpened by disputes in the South and East China Seas that have rattled nerves across the region and led to testy exchanges with Washington just as the Obama administration “pivots” to the Asia-Pacific region following years of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei suggested at a daily news briefing that Washington was not a helpful force in the maritime disputes.

“We have noted that the United States has stated many times that it does not take sides,” he said when asked about the US role. “We hope that the United States will abide by its promises and do more that is beneficial to regional peace and stability, and not the opposite.”

Chinese newspapers, including Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, have suggested the South China Sea territorial claims are among Beijing’s “core national interests” – a term suggesting they share the same importance as sovereignty over Tibet and Xinjiang.

Hong did not directly answer a question about whether that was the government’s official position.

“China, like any other country in the world, has the duty to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said. (Reuters)

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