HONOLULU — The United States is not looking for a fight with China over resources, ideology or territory, Secretary of State John F. Kerry insisted Wednesday, despite the growing list of maritime conflicts that pit U.S. allies against an increasingly assertive China.
“The United States welcomes the rise of a peaceful, prosperous and stable China — one that plays a responsible role in Asia and the world and supports rules and norms on economic and security issues,” Kerry said.
“We are committed to avoiding the trap of strategic rivalry and intend on forging a relationship in which we broaden our cooperation on common interests and constructively manage our differences and disagreements.”
The top U.S. diplomat spoke at the end of an Asian tour dominated by security concerns across the Asia-Pacific region. He met with Southeast Asian partners who are alarmed by what is widely viewed in Asia as China’s maritime land grab, and with Japanese and South Korean diplomats who are concerned about the threat of missiles from North Korea.
“All of us in this room understand that these disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere are about more than claims to islands, reefs and rocks and the economic interests that flow from them,” Kerry said. “They’re about whether might makes right or whether global rules, norms and international law will prevail.”
Kerry’s address at the East-West Center here was intended to flesh out the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot to Asia” with discussions of how climate change, human rights and other concerns figure in the long-term shift away from a European focus and years of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The old magnetic poles are still powerful, however.
The address, titled “America’s Vision for Asia-Pacific Engagement,” was delayed while Kerry juggled phone calls and other work related to the war in the Gaza Strip and crises in Iraq and Ukraine. Dozens of protesters lined the sidewalks outside the hall chanting “Palestine must be free.” Several held signs decrying U.S. diplomatic and military support for Israel.
Kerry sought to cast American interests in the Asia-Pacific region as far broader than a test of strength with China, although much of U.S. policy in Asia is organized around countering China economically and militarily.
The United States is bound by treaty to defend Japan and the Philippines, both of which have maritime territorial disputes with China. The disputes over island chains, shipping and fishing are partly about energy and other resources affected by ocean claims, and partly about China’s expanding military reach. Both things rattle American allies and partners and complicate the U.S. argument that it is not seeking a confrontation.
China often views American intervention in the maritime disputes as an effort to block or “contain” China’s expanding influence. Kerry noted that the United States and China cooperate in several diplomatic areas, including the effort to rein in Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
Territorial disputes between China and its neighbors should be settled by law and dialogue, not force, he said.
“The United States takes no position on questions of sovereignty in the South and East China Seas, but we do care about how those questions are resolved. We care about behavior,” Kerry said. “We firmly oppose the use of intimidation, coercion, or force to assert a territorial or maritime claim by anyone.”