China criticises US for giving tacit backing to Philippines in sea dispute

BEIJING - China criticised US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday for giving tacit backing to the Philippines' stance in a tense maritime dispute, stressing again that it rejects Manila's attempt to seek arbitration.

The Philippines, a US ally, has angered China by launching an arbitration case with the United Nations to challenge the legal validity of Beijing's sweeping claims over the resource-rich South China Sea.

The United States has refrained from taking sides in the dispute, one of Asia's biggest security headaches, but has expressed a national interest in freedom of navigation through one of the world's busiest shipping channels. Kerry told leaders at the East Asia Summit in Brunei, including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, that all claimants "can engage in arbitration and other means of peaceful negotiation".

When asked about Kerry's comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that "non-parties to the dispute should respect the efforts by relevant parties involved to peacefully solve the dispute through direct and friendly negotiation ... instead of doing things that could harm regional peace and stability".

"I also want to add that as everybody can see, the South China Sea has been calm and tranquil, so if some country really wants to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea, it should stop stirring up waves," Hua said.

China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, overlapping with claims from Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam. The last four are members of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The row is one of the region's biggest flashpoints amid China's military build-up and the US strategic "pivot" back to Asia signalled by the Obama administration in 2011.

Frustrated by the slow pace of regional diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute, the Philippines has hired an international legal team to fight its arbitration case under the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea - ignoring growing pressure from Beijing.

Hua reiterated China's stance that it will not accept the Philippines' request for international arbitration.

"China's stance on this will not change," she said. "Our stance is entirely justified by international law.

"China has been advocating and devoted to peacefully solving disputes over territorial and maritime rights and interests with direct claimants through bilateral and friendly negotiation."

Diplomatic efforts to ease tensions are now centred on Chinese talks with ASEAN to frame a code of conduct for disputes in the South China Sea, but Beijing has restricted talks to low-level consultations rather than formal negotiations.

The annual East Asia Summit ended on Thursday without significant progress on the dispute, with a joint ASEAN-China statement saying only that the two sides had agreed to "maintain the momentum of the regular official consultations".