China may smother South China Sea agenda at regional forum

Reuters

By James Pomfret and Greg Torode

NUSA DUA, Indonesia/HONG KONG, Oct 8 (Reuters) - China willlikely exploit the absence of the U.S. president at a majorAsian regional summit this week to brush off attempts to focuson the South China Sea dispute as Beijing continues to bolsterits influence over the strategic waterway.

Any substantive progress in resolving the dispute isunlikely at the East Asia Summit beginning in Brunei onWednesday and tensions between China and other claimants to theoil- and gas-rich sea will likely linger, analysts, seniorregional officials and diplomats said.

The conflicting claims over the South China Sea, stretchingdeep into Southeast Asia, has pit an increasingly assertiveBeijing against smaller Asian nations that look to support fromthe United States. The row is one of the region's biggestflashpoints amid China's military build-up and the U.S.strategic "pivot" back to Asia.

Washington says it is officially neutral but has putpressure on Beijing and other claimants to end the disputethrough talks. It insists all parties refrain from force and donothing to impede sea lanes that carry half the world'sshipping.

U.S. President Barack Obama was scheduled to bring up theSouth China Sea at the Brunei summit, but he cancelled his tourof Asia because of the impasse over the government shutdown inWashington. Secretary of State John Kerry will represent him.

"Overall, it is hard to see how the U.S. can voice theseconcerns as forcefully and with the same authority without thepresident there," said Carl Thayer, a South China Sea expert atthe Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

"And without Obama, I'm not sure other supporting nationswill want to step out in front on this issue, either."

Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia claimparts of the sea, but China says its territory is marked by a"nine-dash line" that encompasses almost all of the waters.Except China and Taiwan, the other claimants are members of theAssociation of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is hostingthe East Asia Summit in Brunei.

BEIJING'S WARNING

Already this week, China has launched a thinly veiledbroadside against intervention by the United States in thedispute.

"The involvement of countries not in the region will onlycomplicate this issue and is not beneficial to improving mutualtrust in this region," said Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin."But there's nothing we can do if people want to talk about itas we cannot muzzle them."

Beijing ultimately wants to settle disputes in the SouthChina Sea through one-to-one negotiations with individualclaimants and not multilaterally - a strategy that plays toChina's strengths as an emerging superpower with a growing navyand substantial economic and trade leverage over many smallerAsian neighbours.

There have been recent signs, however, of a subtle andsophisticated shift in Beijing's engagement over the sea.

Earlier this year, Beijing agreed to hold tightlychoreographed talks with ASEAN on a code of conduct for disputesin the South China Sea, in what Indonesia's Foreign MinisterMarty Natalegawa described as "important progress".

"Remember not too long ago, the idea of having any processgoing on the code of conduct was anathema to China. But now theyare where we want them to be in terms of consultations," he toldReuters on the sidelines of another regional summit on theIndonesian island of Bali.

But with Beijing restricting talks to low-levelconsultations rather than formal negotiations, some diplomatssay China may be giving the appearance of dialogue withoutcommitting to anything substantive.

The Philippines, which has locked horns forcefully withChina over disputed territory, says it had looked for supportfrom its traditional ally Washington for substantial progress onthe code of conduct.

"They (the United States) want the code of conduct to beconcluded expeditiously but it's really all up to China," said Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.

"I'm hopeful but I can't be sure how this is going to moveforward. We're going to have to wait and see."

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