By Simon Webb and Manuel Mogato
VIENTIANE (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday he supported the resumption of bilateral talks between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea, following a ruling against Beijing over the dispute earlier this month.
China did not participate in and has refused to accept the July 12 ruling by the U.N.-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration, in which U.S. ally Manila won an emphatic legal victory.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had asked Kerry to lend his support for talks to restart between Manila and Beijing in a meeting between the two in the Laos capital of Vientiane on Monday.
“The foreign minister said the time has come to move away from public tensions and turn the page,” Kerry told a news conference. “And we agree with that… no claimant should be acting in a way that is provocative, no claimant should take steps that wind up raising tensions.”
Kerry said he would encourage Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to engage in dialogue and negotiations with China when the two meet in Manila on Wednesday. Kerry is due to travel to the Philippines later Tuesday.
China’s dismissal of the court ruling as illegitimate presented a challenge, Kerry said. The international community, including the United States, sees the ruling as legally binding and a matter of law, he added.
“So we still have a task ahead of us, a challenge, which is to try to work going forward to make sure that we are resolving the issues through diplomacy and the rule of law,” he said.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.
China has repeatedly blamed the United States for stoking tensions in the region and of taking sides in the dispute, accusations Washington denies.
In a meeting on the sidelines of a gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Wang told Kerry that China and ASEAN had agreed the dispute should get back onto the “correct” track of being resolved by direct talks with the parties concerned.
China “hopes the United States side takes actual steps to support the resumption of talks between China and the Philippines, and support the efforts of China and ASEAN to maintain regional peace and stability”, Wang said, according to a foreign ministry statement released on Tuesday.
Competing claims with China in the vital shipping lane and resource-rich sea are among the most contentious issues for the 10 members of ASEAN, who are pulled between their desire to assert their sovereignty while fostering ties with an increasingly assertive Beijing.
China scored a diplomatic victory on Monday as ASEAN dropped any reference to the court ruling in a joint statement in the face of resolute objections from Cambodia, China’s closest ASEAN ally.
Speaking to reporters in Vientiane, Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said the dispute was not a fight between China and the United States but between China and the Philippines.
“We would like to pursue bilateral relationships in so far as the peaceful resolution of the dispute is concerned that is between the China and the Philippines. The others are not concerned with that dispute,” Yasay told reporters.
China has also accused Japan of interfering in the dispute.
China’s foreign ministry said Wang again urged Tokyo not to intervene in the South China Sea, saying Japan was not a claimant in the disputes and should avoid interfering in the maritime spats.
“The China-Japan relations are still vulnerable and unsatisfactory,” Wang told Fumio Kishida, Japan’s minister for foreign affairs.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Michael Martina in Vientiane and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast)