By Stuart Grudgings and Lesley Wroughton
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Oct 10 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary ofState John Kerry gave tacit backing to the Philippines' stancein a tense maritime dispute with China on Thursday, saying thatall countries had a right to seek arbitration to resolvecompeting territorial claims.
The Philippines, a U.S. ally, has angered China by launchingan arbitration case with the United Nations to challenge thelegal validity of Beijing's sweeping claims over theresource-rich South China Sea.
The United States has refrained from taking sides in thedispute, one of Asia's biggest security headaches, but hasexpressed a national interest in freedom of navigation throughone of the world's busiest shipping channels.
"All claimants have a responsibility to clarify and aligntheir claims with international law. They can engage inarbitration and other means of peaceful negotiation," Kerry toldleaders at the East Asia Summit in Brunei, including ChinesePremier Li Keqiang.
"Freedom of navigation and overflight is a linchpin ofsecurity in the Pacific," he added.
China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South ChinaSea, overlapping with claims from Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, thePhilippines and Vietnam. The last four are members of the10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The row is one of the region's biggest flashpoints amidChina's military build-up and the U.S. strategic "pivot" back toAsia signalled by the Obama administration in 2011.
Diplomatic efforts to ease tensions are now centred onChinese talks with ASEAN to frame a code of conduct for disputesin the South China Sea, but Beijing has restricted talks tolow-level consultations rather than formal negotiations.
The annual East Asia Summit ended on Thursday withoutsignificant progress on the dispute, with a joint ASEAN-Chinastatement saying only that the two sides had agreed to "maintainthe momentum of the regular official consultations".
Frustrated by the slow pace of regional diplomatic effortsto resolve the dispute, the Philippines has hired a crackinternational legal team to fight its unprecedented arbitrationcase under the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea- ignoring growing pressure from Beijing to scrap the action.
Any result will be unenforceable, legal experts say, butwill carry considerable moral and political weight.
Beijing has accused the Philippines of pursuing the case tolegalise its occupation of islands in the disputed sea and saidit would never agree to cooperate.
Some diplomats have expressed concern that the ASEAN-Chinaconsultations are a bid by China to delay a final agreement on acode while it expands its naval reach and consolidates itsexpansive claims.
ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, in an interview withReuters, insisted that the consultations that had their firstround in China in September were a sign of progress.
"It's especially important progress if we look at whathappened a year before," he said, referring to an unprecedentedbreakdown of an ASEAN summit in Cambodia over a failure to agreewording on the South China Sea.
The next round of talks will take place at an unspecifiedtime next year, still at the relatively low "senior official"level.
On Wednesday, the United States and Japan - which has itsown maritime dispute with Beijing - both pressured China toagree to abide by rules for the South China Sea, where Beijinghas backed its claims with an increasingly assertive navalreach.
A Japanese official cited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe astelling Philippine President Benigno Aquino that Japan was"seriously concerned over efforts to alter the status quo byforce, by intimidation or coercion".
- Politics & Government
- Foreign Policy
- South China Sea
- United Nations