Increasing and sometimes violent encounters between China and its neighbors with competing claims in the South China Sea are driving up shipping costs and risk getting "out of control," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned on Sunday, underscoring the urgency of peacefully resolving disputes over resources and territory in the strategic waters.
Speaking in Bali, Indonesia, where China and the Association of Southeast Asian nations took a first step toward establishing a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea last week, Clinton said that dangerous incidents were on the rise. She said the international community has a vested interest in ending them because they threaten the stability, economic growth and prosperity of the entire Asia-Pacific.
"The rest of the world needs to weigh in because all of us have a stake in ensuring that these disputes don't get out of control," Clinton told reporters at a joint news conference with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. "We ... urge that ASEAN move quickly, I would even add urgently, to adopt a code of conduct that will avoid any problems in the vital sea lanes and territorial waters of the South China Sea."
Clinton said increasing incidents of intimidation _ such as the ramming of boats and cutting of vessels' cables _ were ratcheting up tensions and raising the "cost of doing business for everyone who travels through the South China Sea."
"It is important for us to support freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, so there is no question as to the rights of every nation for its ships, its goods, to pass through the South China Sea," she said.
Clinton was in Bali to attend Asia's largest security conference ahead of which China and ASEAN reached agreement on a declaration intended to pave the way for a code of conduct. But achieving that goal is fraught with difficulty as China has for years rejected such a formal mechanism, preferring to deal with individual countries where its sheer size and strength gives it an advantage.
As she did at the conference on Saturday, Clinton urged all parties to show restraint and to comply with international law. She said all claimants should submit documentation establishing their claims consistent with the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas.
"We think simultaneously there needs to be a very concerted effort to realize a code of conduct and there needs to be a call by the international community to clarify the claims," she said. "Every claimant must make their claim publicly and specifically known so that we know where there is any dispute."
China claims the entire, potentially resource-rich and strategic sea through which one-third of the world's shipping passes. But others, including ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, and Taiwan have partial or overlapping claims.
The loudest protests have come from the Philippines and Vietnam, saying increasingly assertive Chinese ships have interfered with their oil-exploration efforts or bullied crews, something Beijing denies. Those incidents have caused tempers to flare and stoked nationalistic sentiments that some fear could escalate.
On Sunday in Vietnam, about 200 Vietnamese protesters marched around Hanoi's landmark lake, waving flags, singing the national anthem and demanding that China stay out of Vietnamese territory. Some held signs showing the Chinese flag marked with pirates' skulls.
Indonesia, which is the current chair of ASEAN, does not have any claims in the South China Sea but Natalegawa said his country understood the critical importance of following through on the preliminary steps.
"The key part here is that we must make sure that this is not the end of the line, this is but the beginning," he said. "Letting things (remain) in the status quo can be possibly destabilizing and creating uncertainty and opening the potential for miscalculation. This is what we wish to avoid."
Natalegawa said he hoped that progress could be made on a code of conduct before November when Indonesia will host the East Asia Summit, a gathering of leaders from the region and beyond that U.S. President Barack Obama will attend.