Tillerson: U.S., Chinese Officials Had ‘Frank’ South China Sea Exchange in Beijing

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that American and Chinese officials “had a frank exchange” on China’s illegal colonization of the South China Sea on Thursday.

Reuters reports that the exchange occurred before President Donald Trump left for Vietnam on Friday, but did not specify whether the president was involved in the conversation, or who among the U.S. delegation was, other than himself.

“We had a frank exchange here in China on maritime security issues and the South China Sea. The U.S. position remains unchanged,” Tillerson reportedly said, adding that America insists that when “upholding freedom of navigation, that claimants be consistent with international law and that claimants should stop construction and militarization of outposts in order to maximize prospects for successful diplomacy.”

China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, including territory belonging to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and waters off of Natuna Island, Indonesia. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague found no evidence for China’s territorial claims and ruled them invalid in a 2016 verdict, which Beijing vowed to ignore. China has since continued construction of military and civilian facilities in Philippine and Vietnamese territory, particularly the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, Reuters reports, issued a statement appearing to argue that American and Chinese officials agreed on the issue. “Both sides support the protection of freedom of navigation and overflight for all countries, in accordance with international law,” it read.

The United States, both under the Trump administration and predecessor Barack Obama, insisted against China’s claims and executed Freedom of Navigation Exercises (FONOPs) in South China Sea international waters intended to prevent China from asserting an adverse possession claim over waters outside of its maritime borders. The U.S. Navy will “fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows,” members of both administrations often repeated.

Trump did not publicly mention the South China Sea dispute in appearances with Xi Jinping in Beijing. Following Trump’s departure, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying did not mention the South China Sea as one of the topics addressed by the two leaders specifically. Hua did note that they had “had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on China-US relations and major international and regional issues of common interest and reached a series of new important consensus on the growth of China-US relations in the next period to come.”

Trump will have one more major appearance in which the topic may arise before departing Asia. Following his visit to Vietnam, Trump will travel to Manila to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference. The nations whose claims China has challenged are all represented in the bloc except for Taiwan, whose sovereignty is not universally recognized due to Chinese pressure.

The chair of ASEAN, and president of the Philippines, has vowed to discuss the matter at the summit. “I am chair of ASEAN, and I have to carry the voice of ASEAN. I have to tell the truth that everybody is worried,” Rodrigo Duterte said this week in anticipation of the event.

“The whole of ASEAN is worried about how we should behave in the seas that are now militarised, afraid that there might be a mistake and there would be shooting,” he added, noting that the heavy artillery China has loaded into Philippine and Vietnamese territory, including fighter jets and long-range missiles, “are not decorations.”

Duterte also reportedly accused China of using the North Korea nuclear crisis as a distraction for affected nations. “While we were looking intensely on what was evolving in the Korean Peninsula, the next photographs obtained by the intelligence showed almost all islands were militarized already,” Duterte said on Thursday.

Duterte reportedly ordered the launch of a new construction project within Philippine territory in the area this year, but Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said this week he ordered an end to the constructions after China “complained.”

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