US State Department official airs concern over SCS issue

By Roy Mabasa

The United States may not be a claimant country in the South China Sea but it has an obligation as an “interested party” to ensure freedoms of navigation and overflight in the disputed waterways where about 40 percent of global commerce passes through, a ranking American government official said Wednesday.

MB FILE—Photographed through the window of a closed aircraft, an aerial view shows Pag-asa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines on July 20, 2011. China protested a trip made by Filipino lawmakers to disputed areas in the South China Sea to assert the claim of the Philippines. Ethan Sun, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Manila, said the trip scheduled was 'against the spirit' of a code of conduct signed by claimants to the areas in 2002. The Spratlys, believed to be rich in oil, mineral and marine resources, are also claimed in whole or partly by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan. EPA/ROLEX DELA PENA/POOL Photographed through the window of a closed aircraft, an aerial view shows Pag-asa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines. (EPA/ROLEX DELA PENA/POOL / MANILA BULLETIN FILE PHOTO)

“More broadly, for the US as a Pacific nation, the South China Sea is a very important territory for many nations in the region. Almost half of the world’s trade and commerce transits thru the South China Sea and all of us have interest in abiding by international law to exert our freedoms of navigation and overflight, and the right to unimpeded commerce,” US State Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific W. Patrick Murphy told reporters at the sidelines of his visit to Manila.

Reacting to the growing militarization in the area following China’s recent installation of anti-ship and surface-to-are missiles, Murphy said the US has been long concerned about the developments that “threatens stability, security and the peace” among all of the nations that are connected to the region.

“We think that the principles that the parties have agreed to in the past are very important, principles of abiding by international law, of pursuing dialogue, but also ceasing the kind of activities that increase tensions, raise the possibility of conflict, activities like construction, reclamation and militarization,” Murphy said.

In an apparent reference to China’s missile installations, the US official said some of these recent reports of militarization would suggest that “past commitments are being violated, commitments not to militarize, commitments that were made publicly and privately to the United States and other parties.”

“We continue to call for cessation of activities such as construction, reclamation, and militarization on the disputed outpost,” he said.

To resolve the issue, Murphy said the United States is supportive and defers to the ongoing talks between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that’s aims to produce a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Murphy added that it is important for the ASEAN, in which the United States has a strategic partnership, to have a strong unified voice and speak clearly about its rights and its adherence to international law.

The United States, according to Murphy, is committed and believes in the importance of keeping the tensions low and not pursuing actions that can cause instability in the region.

“We are very committed. As I say in the South China Sea, we’re not a claimant but we are a very interested party. We very much hope that the process to resolve disputes can be conducted transparently and in consultation with many third parties that are interested, including the united states,” he stressed.

During his brief visit, Murphy met with officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the various task forces that work on the South China Sea issue, as well as those responsible for the reconstruction and recovery of Marawi.