China's foreign minister today reasserted Beijing's claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea, dismissing a push by his counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, to pursue a diplomatic solution to tensions.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn, reporting from Beijing, says Kerry called for China to halt the building of military outposts on the islands and instead focus on reaching an agreement about the area with its Southeast Asian neighbors.
"I urged China to take actions that will join with everybody in helping to reduce tensions and increase the prospect of a diplomatic solution," Kerry said in Beijing, where he met with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Wang's response? "China's determination to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity is rock-solid and unquestionable," he said.
A number of island chains are the subject of claims and counterclaims involving China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and even the tiny sultanate of Brunei. These disputes involve an area known as the "cow's tongue," which is roughly equivalent to the entire South China Sea.
As we wrote back in 2012: "China sees the islands, and more broadly control over the adjacent seas, as a historical right, dovetailing with its newly reclaimed role of East Asia's dominant power. Also at stake: a strategic waterway with massive oil and gas reserves that potentially could help fuel China's energy-hungry industries and towns."
Last year, a dispute with Vietnam over China's construction of an oil rig in the disputed Paracel Islands led to anti-Chinese riots in Ho Chi Minh City that further strained historically frosty relations between Beijing and Hanoi.
And, in April, Chinese construction going on at the aptly named Mischief Reef (or Meiji Reef as it's called by China) in the disputed Spratly Islands has renewed anger and a tug-of-war over ownership with Vietnam, the Philippines and at least three other claimants.
As The Associated Press notes:
"The U.S. says it takes no position on the sovereignty claims but insists they must be negotiated. Washington also says ensuring maritime safety and access to some of the world's busiest commercial shipping routes is a U.S. national security priority.
"China has bristled at what it sees as U.S. interference in the region and wants to negotiate with the ASEAN countries individually, something those much smaller nations fear will not be fair."