JAKARTA – United States Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink has said the US is looking forward to a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, as ASEAN states and China prepare to resume negotiations.
He said the US stood for freedom of navigation, freedom of flight, unimpeded lawful commerce and peaceful resolutions of disputes across the South China Sea, adding that disputes in the region should be settled under international law.
Kritenbrink is in Indonesia for a three-day visit before flying to Malaysia on Thursday evening. He made the statement during a press briefing at the US Embassy in Jakarta on Wednesday.
“In light of that, we have continued to call for the effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct [DOC] of the parties,” he said. “And we’ve long supported the conclusion of a binding Code of Conduct that recognizes the rights of all involved and that is fully consistent with international law.”
Unlike ASEAN countries and China, the US is not party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But Kritenbrink said the treaty still reflected customary international law and that the US operated “fully in compliance with UNCLOS”.
During his visit to Jakarta, the assistant secretary attended the ASEAN-US Dialogue at the ASEAN Secretariat on Tuesday, which Kritenbrink cochaired with the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s director general for ASEAN cooperation, Sidharto Suryodipuro.
Kritenbrink also attended the ASEAN East Asia Summit’s senior officials meeting on Wednesday and met some Indonesian officials in separate meetings.
He said his Jakarta visit served to demonstrate the US’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and ASEAN, particularly following the establishment of the ASEAN-US Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in Phnom Penh in November 2022 and US President Joe Biden’s hosting of a special ASEAN-US Summit in Washington in May 2022.
“[I’m] here to make that partnership real to demonstrate, again, our commitment to ASEAN centrality, to the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific and our commitment to our shared future together,” Kritenbrink said.
During the meeting, the US also expressed its intention to establish an ASEAN-US center and reaffirmed its support for Timor-Leste to become an observer of ASEAN.
The assistant secretary’s visit to Jakarta came amid ongoing tensions between the US and China, with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang criticizing the US’ “distorted” views and attitudes toward China in remarks on the sidelines of a National People’s Congress session in Beijing on Tuesday.
Kritenbrink said the US saw its relationship with China in primarily competitive terms but was also committed to managing that competition responsibly.
“Our focus is on healthy, responsible competition. As part of that, we are going to speak out candidly about the broad range of areas where Chinese behavior is concerning to us, actions that we believe undermine peace and stability and challenge the rules based international order,” he said.
He said the US would not ask countries to choose between the US and China and that the US recognized ASEAN member states based on their inherent value.
“What we want to do is ensure that you have choices and the ability to make your own choices, free from coercion,” Kritenbrink said.