A U.S. Defense Department official on Friday questioned China’s motive in agreeing to form a code of conduct for the South China Sea, as he urged a Southeast Asian bloc of nations to continue pursuing a legally binding code that would govern actions by claimants in the disputed region.
Randall Schriver, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur that Washington would encourage the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to aim for a code of conduct (COC) that would be “consistent with existing international laws and norms.”
“We do have some suspicion about China’s motive,” Schriver told reporters prior to his meeting with Malaysian Deputy Defense Minister Liew Chin Tong and other security officials.
“The way they behave suggests that they are not participant in upholding international law consistently,” Schriver said, referring to Beijing. “So we would have suspicion in terms of what they seek in the code of conduct.”
Apart from China and Taiwan, the Philippines and fellow ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
Claimant states other than China have been pushing for a legally binding code, which would spell out steps that each nation could take to avoid disputes that could spiral out of control. Some countries want the code to be binding and subject to ratification by signatory states.
China agreed in August 2018 to a draft that would eventually serve as its basis.
Schriver said that despite Washington’s suspicion over Beijing’s motive in participating in discussions, the United States believes that COC could be a mechanism to enhance safety in the disputed region.
The United States was not involved in drafting the code, he said.
Washington has frequently sent warships near some Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea, where an estimated $5 trillion worth of global trade passes annually. Beijing has built military installations atop seven man-made islands it occupies in the oil-rich region.
Schriver issued his comments two days after Beijing displayed its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during a naval review off the coast of northern port city of Qingdao. More than 30 Chinese boats, submarines, frigates and almost 40 warplanes took part in the event, reports said.
The review, which marked the Chinese navy’s 70th anniversary, was part of a major public relations drive by its military amid rising concerns over its activities in South China Sea, according to the Associated Press.
More than a dozen foreign countries also sent warships in the display of firepower, including Thailand, Australia, Japan and Russia, according to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua. The United States did not send a ship.
In his speech after Wednesday’s naval parade, China’s navy chief Shen Jinlong took a dig at Washington and its allies, saying freedom of navigation should not be used to infringe upon the rights of other countries.
“Respect for the rules is the cornerstone of maritime good order,” Reuters news agency quoted Shen as saying, as he underscored that China was continuing to advance talks with Southeast Asian states on the code of conduct.