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September 24, 2017

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Kerry aims to calm South China Sea tensions

Amid concerns about recent provocative steps taken by China and others regarding several disputed territories in the sea, Kerry opened talks with senior Southeast Asian officials at a regional security forum here at which the conflicting claims are expected to be high on the agenda.

Kerry began by meeting Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, whose country has been involved in numerous maritime spats with China, including most recently being angered by the deployment of a deep-sea oil rig in early May near the Paracel islands, which are claimed by both Hanoi and Beijing. Although the Chinese removed the rig two months later, the incident continues to rankle Vietnam.

Washington is concerned that while China's withdrawal of the rig in mid-July had removed an irritant, it had left a legacy of anger and strained relations with Vietnam and likely raised serious questions among China's other neighbors about its long-term strategy.

U.S. officials say Kerry will be urging the Chinese and other claimants o take voluntary steps to ease the mounting discord, while they continue to work on a binding code of conduct for activity around disputed areas. The U.S. and others fear that an escalation in tension could hamper international shipping and lead to conflict. Washington has said for years that maintaining calm in the South China Sea is a U.S. national security interest to the annoyance of China.

The U.S. is calling for a freeze in actions that change the status quo, such as seizing unoccupied islands and land reclamation.

Washington says it is neutral in the disputes, and one U.S. official said Kerry "is not looking for a showdown" with the Chinese, arguing that the issue "is not a superpower battle." The official was not authorized to be identified discussing the issue.

Yet Beijing has reacted negatively to any American involvement in the past, and in fact Chinese officials have already made clear they don't support the proposal.

China says it has a historical right to most of the South China Sea and resents what it sees as U.S. meddling, viewing it as an attempt to contain its growing power.

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