BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei: US Secretary of State John Kerry will push Southeast Asian leaders and China to discuss the South China Sea dispute at an Asian summit, a senior US official said yesterday, despite Beijing’s reluctance to address the issue at such meetings.
Kerry arrived in Brunei for the annual East Asia Summit (EAS) and talks with leaders of Southeast Asian nations and, separately, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
President Barack Obama last week cancelled his trip to the summit due to the US government shutdown, raising concerns that Washington would lose some of its influence in countering China’s assertive claims over the South China Sea.
China has resisted discussing the issue with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), preferring to settle disputes in the South China Sea through one-to-one negotiations with individual claimants.
“The Chinese consistently indicate their view that ‘difficult issues’ that might fall outside the comfort zone of any member need not be discussed,” said the US official. “That is not a view that is held by the US, or, I believe, many if not most of the EAS member states, but we will find out.”
The conflicting claims over the South China Sea pit an increasingly assertive Beijing against smaller Asian nations that look to support from the US.
The row is one of the region’s biggest flashpoints amid China’s military build-up and the U.S. strategic “pivot” back to Asia signalled by the Obama administration in 2011. China claims almost the entire oil and gas-rich South China Sea, overlapping with claims from Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Washington says it is officially neutral but has put pressure on Beijing and other claimants to end the dispute through talks. Nevertheless, Washington will be hamstrung at the summit because of Obama’s absence. Reuters