Clinton says US won't take sides in sea dispute

Posted at 05/01/2012 5:34 AM | Updated as of 05/01/2012 11:50 AM

MANILA, Philippines - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday afternoon (Tuesday morning in Manila) said the US government opposes the use of force or threats by any party in settling territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Speaking at a press conference after the first Philippines-US "2 + 2" talks in Washington, Clinton said that while the US government does not take sides in sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, as a Pacific power, the US has an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the sea lanes in the region.

In her meeting with Philippine officials, Clinton said the US also reaffirmed its obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

She said both sides expressed concern over the developments in the Korean Peninsula as well as "events in the South China Sea, including recent tensions surrounding the Scarborough Shoal."

"In this context, the US has been clear and consistent: while we do not take sides on the competing sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea, as a Pacific power, we have a national interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law and the unimpeded lawful commerce across our sea lanes," she said.

She added the US supports a "collaborative, diplomatic process by all those involved to resolving the various disputes that they encounter."

"We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims, and we remain in close contact with our ally, the Philippines," Clinton said.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta joined Clinton in the news conference on the U.S.-Philippine Strategic Dialogue at the U.S. State Department.

US backs rules-based, multi-lateral approach

Asked whether the Philippines got an "unequivocal assurance" of support from the US, Del Rosario said the US wants the dispute over Scarborough Shoal resolved peacefully and by diplomatic means.

"In terms of US commitment, I think the US has been very clear that they do not get involved in territorial disputes, but that they are firm in terms of taking a position towards a peaceful settlement of the disputes in the South China Sea, towards a multilateral approach and towards the use of a rules-based regime in accordance with international law, specifically UNCLOS," he said.

Del Rosario added that the US has expressed that it will "honor their obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty."

He also said the Philippines is pursuing a 3-track approach on the Scarborough Shoal dispute:

a political track, using the ASEAN as a framework via the code of conduct that is being put together;

a legal track, which means the use of dispute settlement mechanisms. He said the Philippines is hoping to pursue 2 out of 5 mechanisms under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

a diplomatic track, which includes consultations with China to defuse the tension.

Gazmin said the US vowed to support the Philippines when it brings its case to international legal bodies. He said the US wants a "rules-based approach" used in resolving issues in the West Philippine Sea.