WASHINGTON (AP) — China should not use bilateral talks to attempt to "divide and conquer" nations with competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, the United States said Tuesday.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland's comments follow a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to two of those states, Malaysia and Brunei.
Nuland would not say whether the U.S. suspects Beijing's intentions in those talks. A meeting last month of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, ended in acrimony over the South China Sea, as host Cambodia, a close China ally, refused to sign off on language sought by the Philippines and Vietnam mentioning their individual disputes with China.
"What we're most concerned about at the moment is that tensions are going up among the stakeholders so we want to see a commitment to a deal that meets the needs of all," Nuland told a news conference in Washington.
The U.S. and China are increasingly at odds on the issue. Earlier this month, the U.S. criticized China's establishment of a municipality and military garrison on a remote island in the South China Sea as risking an escalation in tensions.
China has pushed back, and on Monday, state-run news agency Xinhua published a commentary criticizing Western nations of "betting on a divided Asia" because of the region's economic vitality while their own economies are waning.
Nuland said the U.S. is urging ASEAN and China to work on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, which has some of the world's busiest sea lanes and are believed to have vast energy deposits.
She said bilateral diplomacy supporting a multilateral deal is fine, "but an effort to divide and conquer and end up with a competitive situation among the different claimants is not going to get where we need to go."
China has long said it wants to handle disputes over its claims bilaterally, rather than in multilaterally, although during a stop in Indonesia before visiting Malaysia and Brunei, foreign minister Yang said China was also willing "on the basis of consensus" to work toward the eventual adoption of a code of conduct.
The U.S. says it does not take a position on the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, but as a Pacific power has a national interest in the maintenance of peace and security there.