'You're late!' Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi irked as John Kerry keeps him waiting before bilateral talks

Meeting during Asean event dealt largely with South China Sea tensions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 August, 2014, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 10:02am

US Secretary of State John Kerry ticked off his Chinese counterpart on Saturday by arriving late for talks between the superpowers as Washington attempts to cool regional maritime tensions.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointedly remarked that he had been waiting “for more than half an hour” in comments through an interpreter after Kerry arrived late for a meeting between the two countries.

Kerry, chuckling sheepishly, apologised for keeping Beijing’s top diplomat waiting.

“I am very, very sorry,” he said ahead of the meeting on the sidelines of talks between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and regional and global powers.

The US has urged an end to all acts that may worsen already strained relations between China and regional rival claimants over parts of the South China Sea.

Wang on Saturday said China was not the aggressor in the disputed waters, but vowed Beijing would have “clear and firm reactions” to defend its interests in the sea.

China earlier in the day vowed “clear and firm reactions” to defend its interests in the South China Sea but rejected suggestions of aggression, as America’s top diplomat urged restraint from all claimants to the bitterly contested waters.

A series of incidents between Beijing and several other nations with territorial claims to the sea has sent tensions soaring across Southeast Asia and spurred Washington to call for a halt to any activities that could worsen regional maritime relations.

Animosity over the South China Sea, a crucial maritime route that is also believed to hold huge oil and gas deposits, is dominating the Asean talks.

“The position of China to safeguard its own sovereignty, maritime rights and interests is firm and unshakeable,” Wang told reporters following a meeting with Asean counterparts.

Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea including waters, islands, reefs, shoals and rocky outcrops nearer to other countries.

The reach of mainland China’s claims has stirred years of diplomatic protest from Asean states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, which also claim parts of the sea, while Taiwan is a sixth claimant.

While Beijing has always acted with “self restraint”, Wang warned “for those groundless provocative activities, the Chinese side is bound to make clear and firm reactions”

Kerry’s trip is seen as part of a wider US foreign policy pivot to reinvigorate alliances in the Asia-Pacific.

Quoting a 2002 declaration of conduct for the disputed region, also signed by China, Kerry urged claimant states to voluntarily agree to step back from any actions that could “complicate or escalate disputes”.

The 2002 declaration is non-binding, a sticking point for the region’s nations.

The Philippines is at the forefront of a push for a legally watertight code of conduct for the seas – something China rejects, preferring to negotiate on a bilateral basis with its rivals.

While insisting Beijing was ready to listen to “well-intentioned proposals”, Wang urged Manila to drop a legal challenge it has filed with the United Nations over China’s claims to the most of the sea.

Washington had said discussions of the South China Sea at the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) on Sunday are expected to be robust, but a State Department official insisted the US was not looking for a “showdown” with China.

A draft statement from Asean foreign ministers, who met Friday, said the bloc had “serious concern” over recent developments in the disputed sea.

Sunday’s ARF will bring together ASEAN foreign ministers and key partners, including the US, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the European Union.