Kerry to push China, SE Asia to discuss sea dispute-official

Reuters

By Lesley Wroughton and Manuel Mogato

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei, Oct 9 (Reuters) - U.S.Secretary of State John Kerry will push Southeast Asian leadersand China to discuss the South China Sea dispute at an Asiansummit, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday, despiteBeijing's reluctance to address the issue at such meetings.

Kerry arrived in Brunei on Wednesday for the annual EastAsia Summit (EAS) and talks with leaders of Southeast Asiannations and, separately, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

President Barack Obama last week cancelled his scheduledtrip to the summit due to the U.S. government shutdown, raisingconcerns that Washington would lose some of its influence incountering China's assertive claims over the South China Sea.

China has resisted discussing the issue with the 10-memberAssociation of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), preferring to settle disputes in the South China Sea through one-to-onenegotiations with individual claimants.

"The Chinese consistently indicate their view that'difficult issues' that might fall outside the comfort zone ofany member need not be discussed," said the U.S. official.

"That is not a view that is held by the U.S., or, I believe,many if not most of the EAS member states, but we will findout."

The conflicting claims over the South China Sea pit anincreasingly assertive Beijing against smaller Asian nationsthat look to support from the United States. The row is one ofthe region's biggest flashpoints amid China's military build-upand the U.S. strategic "pivot" back to Asia signalled by theObama administration in 2011.

China claims almost the entire oil and gas-rich South ChinaSea, overlapping with claims from Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, thePhilippines and Vietnam.

Washington says it is officially neutral but has putpressure on Beijing and other claimants to end the disputethrough talks.

Kerry would emphasise "the role of the United States as "alongstanding champion of security and stability in the region,and as an advocate of the rule of law, peaceful solution ofdisputes, and freedom of navigation, and the principle ofunimpeded lawful commerce," the senior official said.

Nevertheless, Washington will be hamstrung at the summitbecause of Obama's absence.

"I'm sure the Chinese don't mind that I'm not there rightnow," the U.S. president said at a news conference in Washingtonon Tuesday. "There are areas where we have differences and theycan present their point of view and not get as much push back asif I were there."

APPEARANCE OF DIALOGUE

In an apparent softening of its previous stance, Beijingagreed this year to hold "consultations" with ASEAN on a code ofconduct (CoC) for disputes in the South China Sea.

But some diplomats and analysts say China may be giving theappearance of dialogue without committing to anythingsubstantive, aiming to drag the talks out for years while itcontinues to consolidate its expansive maritime claims.

"It's a face-saving mechanism to show the world, to showASEAN, that China is committed to come up with a CoC but theconsultations are designed to delay formal negotiations on abinding code," said one diplomat from an ASEAN nation.

However, Premier Li said the CoC talks in the city of Suzhoulast month were a success and China would be willing to build onthat, although he did not give any specifics.

"We've always agreed that South China Sea disputes should bedealt with in a direct way, and to seek a resolution throughnegotiations and talks," Li said in a speech at the summit.

He however maintained that China "is unshakable in itsresolve to uphold national sovereignty and territorialintegrity".

The dispute has soured relations between China and U.S. allythe Philippines, in particular. The two countries have beeninvolved in naval standoffs and China has effectively occupied ashoal just 124 nautical miles (230 km) off the Philippine coast.

Manila is taking part in the CoC talks but has angered Chinaby launching an arbitration case with the United Nations on thevalidity of China's claims.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino stressed the importanceof the rule of law to the region's economic well-being in aspeech on Wednesday, calling for a return to the naval statusquo that existed at the time a 2002 non-binding agreement onmaritime conduct was signed by China and ASEAN.

"Our development as a region cannot be realized in aninternational environment where the rule of law does not exist,"Aquino said.

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