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Tensions in the East and South China Seas

Volume 557: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2013

8. What reports he has received on the effect of rising tension in the East and South China seas; and what discussions he has had with countries in that region. (138338)

12. What reports he has received on the effect of rising tension in the East and South China seas; and what discussions he has had with countries in that region.

I receive regular updates from our embassies on both these situations and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) was in the region last week. We regard these maritime disputes as regional issues and are encouraging all parties involved to pursue a peaceful resolution in line with international law. On the South China sea we encourage progress on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China code of conduct.

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the dispute—the protests—in the East and South China seas have been raised with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and does he believe that the tensions will be resolved both peacefully and swiftly?

Yes, of course we have discussed this with ASEAN and bilaterally with many of the countries involved. We do not take a view on the strength of the various claims, but we encourage a peaceful resolution to these disputes in line with international law. ASEAN specifically has been working on a code of conduct, and we judge the code to be the best immediate prospect of managing the disputes, so we encourage all parties to work with that.

I accept what the Foreign Secretary says about this being a regional conflict, but stability in that area of the world is incredibly important for UK trade. In Telford we have a large number of Japanese companies and companies from the region. What discussions has he had with the Japanese Government on stability in that area?

I discussed this with the then Japanese Foreign Minister in October, Foreign Minister Genba, during our strategic dialogue. The hon. Gentleman is right—the UK has clear interests in the region, including preserving freedom of navigation and ensuring the safety of UK oil and gas companies operating in the region, but I am sure it is very much the right approach to encourage all parties to pursue a peaceful resolution, rather than for the United Kingdom to take a position on the strength of the various claims.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the dispute about the Senkaku islands cannot be regarded as just a regional issue, because of the United States’ commitment to defend both Japan and Taiwan, although the legal position of the islands is not so clear? As it is reported that the Chinese are massing missiles on the coast of the East China sea capable of hitting Japan, we could be facing a very dangerous international situation. As we are friends of all the disputants and their allies on this issue, this is an opportunity for the Foreign Secretary to show his statesmanship.

When I say that it is a regional issue, I do not mean that the rest of the world is not concerned about it. It is a matter to be resolved by the countries in the region. That is the important point. Of course we have been talking to the parties involved and have urged them to seek peaceful and co-operative solutions in accordance with international law, including in accordance with the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, so we will continue to take that role.

The rising economic importance of Asia is widely acknowledged, as well as the importance of those sea lanes, not only to the Asian economy but to the European and the wider world economy. I concur with the right hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell)—this cannot be just a matter of regional importance, especially with the increasing level of defence equipment expenditure taking place in that region. Can we therefore look at ensuring that the disputes are resolved through international law and not through military action?

The latter point is very important and absolutely right, but the best role that the United Kingdom can play in order to contribute to that is to do the sorts of things that I described. I do not think that the United Kingdom taking a position on the strength of various claims would serve very well our objective of trying to bring about a peaceful resolution, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to stress the importance of that.