Clinton Challenges China to Solve Territorial Disputes Peacefully

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. If the 20th century was America's century, the 21st will be China's. It's too early to make that call, of course. But there is no mistaking the tension between Washington and Beijing, especially over who calls the shots in the Asia-Pacific region. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is in Beijing today to press China over its many territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. She traveled from Indonesia where she called on Asian nations to present a unified front against China. She proposed a binding code of conduct to prevent the risk of confrontation. The World's, Mary Kay Magistad is in Beijing. Give us a little bit of background on this first, Mary Kay. How serious are the territorial disputes that Hillary Clinton is referring to?

Mary Kay Magistad: These are long-standing disputes where six different nations or entities claim sovereignty over some part of the South China Sea. Now recently, in the last few years, China has been increasingly aggressive in asserting its claims in saying, these are ancient waters, ancient islands that China has always laid claim to. There isn't actually historical documentation to back this up. In fact, certain claimants, for instance, the Philippines say this is patently ridiculous, you're claiming waters that are much closer to our shores than they are to yours.

Mullins: The bottom line for both parties in this particular case say the Philippines and China is what? I mean, is it giving up fishing rights? Is it worried just about borderlines?

Magistad: All the claimants of the South China Sea are interested in fishing rights. They're interested in rights of passage. And they're interested in rights to explore for oil and gas in the South China Sea. Particularly in recent years, it's been found that there's a fair bit of oil and gas, particularly off the Philippine's Island of Palawan.

Mullins: So these are real issues behind this, it's not just kind of tit for tat?

Magistad: These are real issues but the Philippines, Vietnam and other claimants say, "These waters, these islands are much closer to us than they are to China and by the standards of the International Law of the Sea, they should be ours, not China's." Now China says, "We can resolve this. We can talk country to country on a bilateral basis and we'll come to some sort of an agreement." What Hillary Rodham Clinton said today was, "Southeast Asian countries who have claims to the South China Sea should stand together and insist on a multilateral discussion with China to agree to a code of conduct in how to act within the South China Sea and how to share resources." China's really not interested in doing that. In fact, it's actively opposed to a multilateral approach. So, the Chinese have been striking out against Hillary. Xinhua News Agency, the official Chinese news agency, called her a sneaky troublemaker and said that these sorts of interventions are just a continuation of US hegemony. Of course, some of China's neighbors would say that it's China that's trying to be hegemonic in the region.

Mullins: Why is the United States involved at all?

Magistad: Well, the United States has a defense treaty with the Philippines so if it were to come to blows with China, the US could very well be involved. Also, the US has an active interest in making sure that the sea lanes remain open and that US ships can pass freely. A lot of international trade passes through the South China Sea. And also, the US wants to make clear to China that it's not going quietly away from being a Pacific power. It intends to continue to be an Asian power and a Pacific power for a long time to come. The Chinese view is that China is rising and the US is falling, and the US should just step aside and accept this reality gracefully. The United States has made it clear, in the last two or three years especially, that that's really not how they see it. That, in fact, the US will stay in Asia for a long time to come.

Mullins: Mary Kay, you've been watching US politics and how it affects China and vice versa for quite some time now, do you feel as though part of what the Secretary of State is saying now is election posturing?

Magistad: No, not at all. I think is part of US diplomacy toward China. It's part of a long-term policy toward China. It's in the interest of the United States that issues of sovereignty in the South China Sea be settled in a multilateral and peaceful way. The US does not want to go to war China. It does not want war in East Asia that it might be drawn into. So this, I believe is a sincere sentiment that is being expressed while also sending the message to China that the United States is and will continue to be and Asia-Pacific player and that China cannot ignore it or expect that it can sort of kick it aside and do what it would like.

Mullins: Speaking to us from Beijing, The World's, Mary Kay Magistad. Thanks.

Magistad: Thanks, Lisa.