United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he had frank talks with Chinese officials regarding the disputed South China Sea, which has pitted Beijing against an increasingly irritated group of neighbors.
“We had a frank exchange here in China on maritime security issues and the South China Sea,” Tillerson told reporters during President Donald Trump’s visit to Beijing on Thursday.” The U.S. position remains unchanged.”
He added, “We insist on 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 lays claim to virtually the entire area— a strategic waterway through which more than $3 trillion in trade passes through each year, and spotted with islands housing oil and gas fields. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claims to parts of the South China Sea. In the past, China has caught the eye of the international community for creating artificial islands in the region and increasing its military presence there.
The Obama Administration responded to these efforts by sending U.S. warships to conduct freedom of navigation patrols—a move stepped up by President Trump.
The thorny issue is likely to come up as Trump completes his five-nation tour across Asia. He’s set to take part in two regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines. The latter recently sued China over their claims to the South China Sea. Their view was backed by an international arbitration court. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Wednesday he will ask China to come clean with its true intentions in the South China Sea, even though he’s typically brushed the issue aside during his past sixteen months in office.
But according to China’s Foreign Ministry, Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping have expressed a commitment to maintaining peace on the South China Sea.
“Both sides support the protection of freedom of navigation and overflight for all countries, in accordance with international law,” it said in a statement. “The United States has angered China with freedom of navigation patrols close to Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea, which have been continued by the Trump administration.”