Clinton seeks accord on South China Sea

BEIJING — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is in Beijing to press Chinese authorities to agree to peacefully resolve disputes with their smaller neighbors over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

But as she began her meetings here, China questioned the stated neutrality of the United States.

Mrs. Clinton met late Tuesday with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi after arriving in China from Indonesia, where she urged Southeast Asian nations to present a unified front in dealing with China in attempts to ease rising tensions in the South China Sea.

Mrs. Clinton will meet Wednesday with other top Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao and State Councillor Dai Bingguo.

The U.S. wants China and the other claimants to adopt a binding code of conduct for the region, along with a process to resolve maritime disputes without coercion, intimidation or the use of force.

Mrs. Clinton wants the Chinese to drop their insistence on settling conflicting claims with individual nations and instead embrace a multilateral mechanism that will give the smaller members of the Association of South East Asian Nations greater clout in negotiations.

She urged all parties to make “meaningful progress” before the November summit of East Asian leaders that President Obama plans to attend in Cambodia.

In Indonesia’s capital before heading to China, Mrs. Clinton offered strong U.S. support for a regionally endorsed plan to ease rising tensions by implementing the code of conduct.

Jakarta is the headquarters of ASEAN, and Mrs. Clinton pressed the group to insist that China agree to deal with them as a bloc.

The stance puts the U.S. squarely at odds with China, which has become more aggressive in pressing its territorial claims with its neighbors and wants the disputes to be resolved with each country, giving it greater leverage.

China on Tuesday expressed skepticism that the U.S. is neutral in the disputes.

“The U.S. has many times said it does not take a position,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday. “I hope they will keep their promise and do more to help stability and not the opposite.

“The South China Sea dispute is a complicated thing. To China, the South China Sea dispute is about the sovereignty of some of the islands there,” Mr. Hong said. “China, like other countries in the world, has the obligation to safeguard its territories.”

China and a host of Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei, have overlapping claims to several small, but potentially energy-rich areas of the South China Sea.

In July, China angered the United States, as well as Vietnam and the Philippines, by creating a city and military garrison on a remote island 220 miles from its southernmost province intended to administer hundreds of thousands of square miles of water where China wants to strengthen its control over disputed islands.

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