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Kerry and Chinese FM discuss tensions over islands

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands before a bilateral meeting at the Putra World Trade Center in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 5, 2015.

[KUALA LUMPUR] US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday discussed rising tensions over the South China Sea, a flashpoint issue that has been stoked by Beijing's island building in the disputed waters.

Beijing has sparked alarm in the region by expanding tiny reefs and constructing military posts to reinforce its claims over the strategic waters.

The United States and Southeast Asian countries have called for Beijing to halt such activities, which have dominated discussions at the regional security forum, but China has refused.

Mr Kerry and China's foreign minister Wang Yi discussed the matter in Kuala Lumpur on the sidelines of the gathering, hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which runs until Thursday.

But they downplayed the issue, a day after Southeast Asian warned the row was threatening peace and stability.

"I would just add I had a good meeting with the foreign minister of China and I hope very much that at this meeting over the course of today and tomorrow we will find a way to move forward effectively together, all of us," Mr Kerry said after their talks.

Mr Wang, meanwhile, told reporters that Mr Kerry "welcomed China's support for peacefully resolving the South China Sea issue." Beijing claims control over nearly the entire South China Sea, a key shipping route thought to hold rich oil and gas reserves.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - all Asean members - also have various claims, as does Taiwan, many of which overlap.


Before their bilateral meeting, Kerry had said it was just one of the issues in the two power's complex relations that would command attention in the talks.

These include plans for a September visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the United States and China's "great cooperation" on the recent Iran nuclear deal, Mr Kerry said.

On Tuesday, Southeast Asian foreign ministers said China's land-reclamation activities were raising regional tensions, with the Philippines slamming Beijing's "unilateral and aggressive activities".

The US and some Southeast Asian countries have called for China to freeze such activities.

Mr Kerry, in a meeting on Wednesday with Asean foreign ministers later Wednesday, said Washington shares their desire "to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea".

He stressed the need to maintain "the security of critical sea lanes and fishing grounds and to see that disputes in the area are managed peacefully and on the basis of international law." But he otherwise avoided strong language.

China has insisted it will not discuss the issue during formal meetings at the forum, saying disagreements must be handled on a bilateral basis between rival claimants.

Diplomats and analysts say this stance is aimed at preventing Asean from presenting a more united front.

A Washington-based think tank said this week Beijing could be preparing to build a second airstrip on an artificial island.

China is already building a 3,000m runway on Fiery Cross reef, which could ultimately be used for combat operations, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.