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India, US say South China Sea code should not ‘prejudice’ any nation

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper delivers a speech during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 18, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)
October 28, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

India on Tuesday joined the U.S. in calling for the South China Sea Code of Conduct being negotiated by China and the Southeast Asian bloc to adhere to international law.

The comment came in a joint statement issued after the top diplomats and defense officials of the U.S. and India held a so-called “2 + 2” meeting in New Delhi.

The statement “emphasized that the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea should not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of any nation in accordance with international law.”

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have undertaken protracted negotiations for the code that would govern behavior between claimants in the disputed South China Sea.

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China, whose sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea overlap with several ASEAN member states, wants to complete the negotiations by the end of 2021.

The U.S. and India did not spell out their concerns about how the code might prejudice the rights of nations.

For its part, the U.S. has taken a harder line in recent months on China’s intrusions into other claimants’ waters, declaring that China does not have economic rights inside other nations’ exclusive economic zones or around disputed features.

Analysts say one point of contention in the code negotiations is China’s insistence that exploration for resources, such as oil and natural gas, in the South China Sea involve joint partnerships with Chinese companies.

India, like the U.S., is not a party to the South China Sea territorial disputes. But Delhi has shown increasing willingness to comment on the issue as its own relations with Beijing have deteriorated in recent months after Chinese and Indian forces clashed at their remote land border.

Tuesday’s meeting was joined by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mike Esper, and India’s Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the [Chinese Communist Party] is no friend to democracy, the rule of law, transparency, nor to freedom of navigation – the foundation of a free and open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Pompeo said at a press conference held after the summit.

Jaishankar did not mention China by name, but said peace was only possible when all countries respect “the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states”.

The two sides also signed an information-sharing pact concerning satellite data.

Their joint statement reiterated support for rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, and “ASEAN Centrality.”

ASEAN comprises Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Singapore. ASEAN Centrality refers to the leading role ASEAN member-states insist the bloc takes in maintaining peace throughout the region, and without external interference.

On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. of forcing states in the region to pick sides between the U.S. and China.

“We urge [Secretary Pompeo] to discard the Cold War zero-sum mentality, stop hyping up the so-called “China threat”, and stop the misguided efforts to sow discord between regional countries and undermine regional peace and stability,” Wang Wenbin, the ministry’s spokesperson, said at a press conference in Beijing.

The U.S. and India, along with Japan and Australia, make up the “Quad,” a grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies that Washington makes no bones in portraying as a coalition that opposes China’s rising influence.

The Quad held its second-ever high-level meeting in early October. All four nations will join the Malabar naval exercise being hosted by India next month. In the past, the drills just involved India, the U.S. and Japan, but this time Australia will take part too.