Territorial disputes in both the East China Sea and South China Sea should be resolved by China and involve countries on a bilateral basis, and the United States will still stay neutral in the process, US Ambassador to China Gary Locke said on Thursday in Washington.
"We are very sincere about our statement saying we are neutral," he said, after delivering a speech at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the US-China Business Council.
It was Locke's only public appearance during his trip to the US capital.
"We take absolutely no position on who is right, and we do believe that both sides need to try to resolve this," he said, adding that China and the Philippines, and China and Vietnam could have their own negotiations.
His remarks may suggest a shift in Washington's position on Asia-Pacific regional issues.
In July 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waded into the South China Sea territorial disputes by telling a regional security forum in Vietnam that a peaceful resolution of the disputes over the Nansha and Xisha islands was in the US national interest. And she suggested a multilateral solution to the question.
At the time, Beijing objected strongly, saying that Washington was interfering in an Asian regional issue.
China, which is dealing with overlapping claims in the South China Sea with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, has always tried to solve the issue through bilateral negotiations.
Since April of this year, tensions between China and Japan have been escalating over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
Amid the heated disputes, the Philippines launched a provocative move on Wednesday to unilaterally rename the Luzon Sea and the waters within, around and adjacent to China's Nansha Islands and Huangyan Island as the "West Philippine Sea" in an administrative order signed by President Benigno Aquino, according to Xinhua News Agency.
Locke said that during Clinton's recent visit to Beijing, both Washington and Beijing had "very good" discussions on those territorial issues and wanted to "lower the temperature".
"What we do care about is making sure that neither side, no claimant, engages in any type of activity that escalates tensions and jeopardizes safety and freedom of navigation for everybody," he said.
Though Locke mentioned solving the disputes on a bilateral basis, it does not mean that Washington has changed its multilateral approach, said Douglas Paal, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie endowment, who moderated the event.
"I see no significant difference," he said. "If Clinton changes her position, she will change it, not the ambassador."
Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US encourages collaborative solutions to problems in the South China Sea and believes that multilateral talks between China and ASEAN are needed, especially to conclude a dispute settlement mechanism — not to resolve the disputes over sovereignty, but to manage and resolve them.