The US State Department is urging all countries with claims in the South China Sea to voluntarily halt all further construction activity there to lower tensions and create a favourable environment for talks on a binding Code of Conduct.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Michael Fuchs last Friday outlined a proposal for a moratorium on activities that would further escalate simmering tensions in the region.
"Claimants could clarify what types of alterations are provocative and what are merely efforts to maintain a long-existing presence in accordance with the 2002 status quo," he said at a conference on the South China Sea organised by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
"For example, alterations that fundamentally change the nature, size or capabilities of the presence could fall under the 'freeze', whereas routine maintenance operations would be permissible."
In recent years, there have been efforts by nearly all competing parties to try to strengthen their territorial claims in the South China Sea by building on or reclaiming land around normally uninhabitable rocks. Some have also built airstrips or ports to serve strategic military aims.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea prescribes different significance to islands, rocks and low-tide elevations, with islands granting the owner the most rights.
However, legal scholars have been quick to stress that human construction or reclamation does not change the feature in the eyes of the law.
In June, the Philippines had similarly suggested a construction freeze in the region after China started building a school on the largest island in the Paracels to serve military officers stationed there. China rejected the suggestion.
Last Friday, Mr Fuchs also called on all sides to commit to stop seizing features and to refrain from unilateral enforcement measures against other claimants' longstanding economic activities that have been taking place in disputed areas.
He reiterated US support for the China-ASEAN Code of Conduct and stressed that any freeze would not affect the claimants.
"If adopted, the freeze would not be prejudicial to the resolution of competing claims. The freeze would simply halt efforts to reinforce claims, pending their resolution," Mr Fuchs said.
"We make this suggestion as an idea to spark serious discussions about ways to reduce tensions and address the disputes. The claimants themselves should get together to decide the parameters of a freeze."
This article was first published on July 13, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.