WASHINGTON D.C.— The United States wants a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea, commonly known as South China Sea, that does not take away its right and the right of other countries to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight.
Speaking to a group of Filipino journalists, Mark Clark, director of the US State Department’s Office of Maritime Southeast Asia of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said that while the US is not a party to negotiations nor a claimant state, it has a “vested interest” in the outcome of the code of conduct.
“We aren’t part of the immediate talks on the code of conduct. That’s a factual matter but the United States has a very important national interest in the South China Sea as do other countries, as an international waterway, very important one, as an international airspace,” Clark said.
“We again would like to see an outcome that reinforces international law and does not take away your rights as the Philippines or our rights as United States. So, we have a vested interest in the outcome even if we are not a party to the talks." he added.
Clark added the code of conduct must be consistent with international law and will not bar other countries from exercising freedom of navigation in international waters.
He said it was important that a code of conduct supported the rights of claimant states and would not take away rights of other countries to sail, navigate and fly freely over an international space, Clark said.
“A meaningful Code of Conduct needs to reinforce and be consistent with international law.”
Clark stressed disputes in the West Philippine Sea must be resolved peacefully and said the US rejects any bullying activity, including by China.
“We believe in the rights of all nations, large and small, should be respected, that the issues in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully without coercion in accordance with international law. We don’t approve of countries like China when they engage in bullying activity or coercion. We don’t think that's the right way for a responsible country to act in the 21st century,” Clark said.
“When we see that activity, we speak very frankly about it. We also have spoken very frankly about the lack of legitimacy of China’s 9-dash line which does not have a basis in international law and I think that’s one of the points that was affirmed in the tribunal ruling in 2016.”
The Pentagon declined to discuss future operations or whether it would conduct more freedom of navigation operations but said every country around the South China Sea, regardless of size, has an equal stake in the region.
“Everyone wins with a safe and secure South China Sea and it’s a widely known US stance that every country in and around the South China Sea regardless of size has equal stake in the region. And it’s very important and it’s important to every country involved that they have a say,” said David Eastburn, spokesman of the US Department of Defense.
Brian Harding, deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Southeast Asia Program said a code of conduct should be legally binding but he was not optimistic that a COC would happen in the next two years.
“The parties have not actually stared negotiating or giving up any ground on a particular position,” Harding told Filipino journalists.
While he hopes parties can agree on a COC, Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation, is skeptical about its value, saying the presence of the 7th Fleet of the US Navy in Japan as part of the Pacific Fleet is a better deterrent to Chinese aggression.
“The Code of Conduct is only as good as the commitment of the parties to adhere to it. It’s just a piece of paper,” Lohman said.
“I think more important actually than the code of conduct is the US 7th Fleet and our cooperation with the Philippines and our other allies in the region. That’s gonna be more important to restrain Chinese ambitions than any piece of paper,” he said.