After calmer waters

us, china willing to explore dialogue in order to ease tensions over south china sea claims

PHNOM PENH — The United States and China signalled a willingness today to work together on “sensitive issues” in a move to cool tensions between rival claimants to the potentially oil-rich and increasingly militarised South China Sea.

Long-simmering tensions in the waters have entered a more contentious chapter this year as the six parties who claim the territory search deeper into the disputed waters for energy supplies while building up their navies and defence alliances.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said Beijing was ready to work with Washington “to expand our common ground, respect each other, properly handle differences on sensitive issues, and push forward” relations.

Echoing Yang’s conciliatory tone, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the importance of US-China cooperation in regional institutions.

“The United States and China not only can, but will work together in Asia,” she told reporters ahead of a meeting with Yang on the sidelines of a regional forum in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

Earlier, Clinton called on all parties to refrain from issuing threats, and advocated all-party dialogue to address rival claims to the waters, a potential military flashpoint.

Her stance was likely to upset Beijing which wants to take a bilateral approach to resolving the row.

In a text released by the State Department, Clinton said all parties should resolve disputes “without coercion, without intimidation, without threats, and without use of force”.

Attempts to solve the problems bilaterally, she added, “could be a recipe for confusion and even confrontation”.

The pledges by China and the United States to cooperate could cool tempers for now, but the maritime issue is extremely complex and sensitive, and could take years to resolve.

Beijing claims the South China Sea as its territory based on historical records and has said China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the area.

The Philippines and China only recently stepped back from a months-long standoff at the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe shaped reef in waters they both claim – the latest round of naval brinkmanship over the heavily trafficked waters.

The United States has stressed it is neutral in the long-running maritime dispute, despite offering to help boost the Philippines’ decrepit military forces. China has warned that “external forces” should not get involved.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also lay claim to parts of the South China Sea. (Reuters)

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