The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel spoke out against China’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea on Thursday.
Territorial disputes are ongoing in the area, with Beijing attempting to strengthen its claims by building a number of artificial islands on what were previously submerged reefs and rocks. Now Russel has addressed the matter, calling the program “troubling,” according to Reuters.
Upcoming talks to address a variety of issues
The issue will be discussed during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which will take place in Washington D.C. next week. Tensions continue to rise in the region due to ongoing land reclamation, as well as a Chinese statement on the matter which insisted that the program did not contravene international law.
Russel believes that China is not doing enough to reduce tensions, which “is what we would all want,” he said. “Frankly, it’s an issue between China and international law,” he added.
He later insisted that the policy of the Obama administration is to engage in dialogue with China. “There is an unwavering determination on the part of the United States to avoid military confrontation, including with China,” Russel said. “That serves no one’s interest and, frankly, that is not the issue that faces us in the South China Sea.”
A recent statement from China stated that the land reclamation efforts would soon be over, but that it would continue to build facilities on the artificial islands. Whether or not the statement was designed to reduce tensions in the region, it led to criticism from rival claimants, which include the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
China denies that land reclamation efforts are for military purposes
China’s foreign ministry released a short statement which claimed that the project was “beyond reproach,” and primarily designed for civilian purposes rather than military ones. The proposed infrastructure projects are designed to support maritime search and rescue, scientific research and other non-military objectives, according to China.
“It is fair, reasonable, and lawful. It does not affect, and is not targeted against, any country and will not affect countries’ freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea,” the statement said, repeating claims previously made by officials in Beijing.
The project has provoked criticism from rival claimants as well as the U.S., and Washington is worried by the reclamation of over 2,000 acres of land. The South China Sea is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and also hosts rich fishing grounds. Any restrictions on access could be disastrous for trade and security.
Cyber security up for discussion
Also on the agenda at the impending talks is the issue of cyberspace, and Russel says that the two nations are “two of the biggest consumers of the Internet – our businesses, our organizations and our people are vulnerable.”
Accusations of cyber espionage and the stealing of trade secrets are a regular occurrence, with U.S. businesses suffering at the hands of hackers who are allegedly working for China.
“The president said yesterday that the intrusions and the attacks against us all aren’t going to stop. If anything, they’re likely to accelerate,” Russel said. “That requires that we significantly enhance our ability to safeguard the ability of our citizens to use cyberspace.”
U.S. officials are presumably hoping to engage China in a closer working relationship in order to properly discuss the need for mutual cyber security. “There is a need for dialogue and a need for real transparency,”said Russel.
The two nations did form a cybersecurity working group, but the Chinese withdrew from the group after the U.S. charged 5 members of the Chinese military for hacking in May 2014. China has consistently denied the charges, but it is not the only controversy which has arisen related to state-sponsored cyber attacks.
Talks are part of important dialogue between two powers
The talks will be led by Secretary of State John Kerry and China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi, who will also discuss the difficult issue of human rights in China, as well as attempting to foster a closer working relationship on climate change.
“We don’t always see eye to eye, but the fact is global challenges require us to co-operate,” Russel said. “We work through our differences and seek to solve problems and manage the problems we can’t seem to solve.”
Relations between the world’s two largest economies are delicate, and China is increasingly pushing the U.S. to reconsider the relationship. The South China Sea is just one area in which Beijing is testing the waters to see how far the U.S. will go to maintain its primacy. As it stands, China is not challenging U.S. global hegemony, but it does want greater respect and authority in Asia.