US: China claims must be based on land features

Posted at 08/07/2014 4:48 AM

WASHINGTON – While the United States accepts the right of China and others to press their sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, "we ask only, however, that they do so in a peaceful and constructive manner consistent with international law," said Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel.

“We are not favoring Vietnam’s claims over those of China. We are not favoring the Philippines over those of, say, Brunei or Malaysia. We are neutral on the issue of sovereignty. We are not neutral, however, on the issue of behavior,” he said.

He told reporters all claimants had an obligation to assert their claims in a peaceful manner consistent with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“And what that means, in part, is that territorial claims must be based on land features. It’s not possible under UNCLOS merely to assert sovereignty over the seas. As the saying goes, land dominates water,” he said.

Beijing bases its claim to almost all of the South China Sea on a U-shaped nine-dash line which covers an area it says has traditionally been China’s fishing grounds.

Russel said ASEAN and China have to accelerate their effort to conclude a code of conduct in the South China Sea to prevent the risk of an incident leading to a crisis. From the US perspective, this was “doable” he said.

Measures claimants could take would be to identify actions they find troubling if not provocative on the part of other claimants and to agree to renounce these actions.

It can range from modest steps that have already been agreed to by all claimants, such as an agreement not to seize currently unoccupied land features, or it could include more significant steps, such as a moratorium on the reclamation work that several claimants have started to add land to the features that they currently occupy.