HANOI, Nov 12 – U.S. President Donald Trump said
on Sunday he was prepared to mediate between claimants to the
South China Sea, where five countries contest China’s sweeping
claims to the busy waterway.
Trump was speaking in Vietnam, which has become the most
vocal opponent of China’s claims and its construction and
militarisation of artificial islands in the sea. About
$3-trillion in goods passes through the sea each year.
“If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know,”
Trump said in comments at a meeting in Hanoi with Vietnam’s
president, Tran Dai Quang.
Trump acknowledged that China’s position on the South China
Sea was a problem.
“I’m a very good mediator and arbitrator,” he said.
President Quang said Vietnam believed in handling disputes
on the South China Sea through peaceful negotiations and on the
basis of international laws – which Vietnam says nullify China’s
Vietnam has reclaimed land around reefs and islets, but on
nowhere near the same scale as China. Brunei, Malaysia, the
Philippines and Taiwan also have claims in the sea.
Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has grown closer
to China, Vietnam has emerged as China’s main challenger in the
region. In July, China pressured Vietnam to stop oil drilling in
a disputed area, taking relations to a low.
Relations have since improved and Chinese President Xi
Jinping is visiting Hanoi later on Sunday.
The South China Sea was discussed in Beijing on an earlier
leg of Trump’s 12-day Asian tour and U.S. Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson said the United States and China had a frank exchange
The United States has angered China with freedom of
navigation patrols close to Chinese-controlled islands.
CODE OF CONDUCT
From Vietnam, Trump left for the Philippines – the last stop
on his tour – for a meeting with leaders of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In August, the foreign ministers of the Southeast Asian
countries and China adopted a negotiating framework for a code
of conduct in the South China Sea, although critics see it as a
tactic to buy China time to consolidate its power.
The framework seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct
(DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which has mostly been
ignored by claimant states, particularly China, which has built
seven man-made islands in disputed waters, three of them
equipped with runways, surface-to-air missiles and radars.
All parties say the framework is only an outline for how the
code will be established and critics raise doubts about how
effective the pact will be.
The framework will be endorsed by China and ASEAN members at
a summit in Manila on Monday, a diplomat from one of the
regional bloc’s countries said.
The next step is for ASEAN and China to start formal
consultations and negotiations for the actual Code of Conduct,
and the earliest that talks on this can start is February 2018,
the diplomat said.
Relations between Vietnam and the United States have
blossomed in the decades since their war ended in 1975. A recent
survey put the favourability of the United States at 84 percent
But Vietnam’s trade surplus remains an irritant for the
Trump administration. At $32 billion last year, it was the sixth
largest with the United States, though less than a tenth the
size of China’s.
“We want to get that straightened out very quickly,” Trump
said at a meeting with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Vietnamese and U.S. companies signed memorandums of
understanding on gas development and automobiles as well as
aircraft engine purchase and support during Trump’s visit. The
value of the deals was unclear.