U.S., Japan press China on South China Sea dispute

Reuters

* Kerry in Brunei for summit, met China's Li on sidelines

* China has been reluctant to address sea dispute

* Japan's Abe pledges support for ASEAN

* Obama cancelled trip to summit due to U.S. shutdown

By Lesley Wroughton and Manuel Mogato

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei, Oct 10 (Reuters) - U.S.Secretary of State John Kerry will press China and SoutheastAsian nations to discuss the South China Sea dispute at an Asiansummit, a senior U.S. official said, despite Beijing'sreluctance to address the issue in public forums.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is also attending,said late on Wednesday the South China Sea dispute was a matterof concern to the entire region. In pointed remarks, he saidTokyo would continue to cooperate with the Association ofSoutheast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in resolving the row.

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

A U.S. official said Kerry would urge ASEAN member states tocontinue to work "for enhanced coherence and unity" tostrengthen their position with China in negotiating a code ofconduct for the South China Sea.

Obama last week cancelled his scheduled trip to the summitbecause of the U.S. government shutdown, raising concern thatWashington would lose some of its influence in counteringChina's assertive claims over the South China Sea and inmaintaining its strategic "rebalancing" toward Asia.

"That rebalance is a commitment, it is there to stay andwill continue into the future," Kerry told ASEAN leaders inopening remarks shortly after arriving. He began his speech byapologising that Obama was not able to attend but emphasised theU.S. commitment to the region.

"I assure you that these events in Washington are a momentin politics and not more than that," Kerry said. "Thepartnership that we share with ASEAN remains a top priority forthe Obama administration."

China has resisted discussing the territorial issue with the10-member ASEAN, preferring to settle disputes in the SouthChina Sea through negotiations with individual claimants. It hasalso frowned at what it sees as U.S. meddling in a regionalissue.

China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South ChinaSea, overlapping with claims from Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, thePhilippines and Vietnam. The last four are members of ASEAN.

The row is one of the region's biggest flashpoints amidChina's military build-up and the U.S. strategic "pivot" back toAsia signalled by the Obama administration in 2011.

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

"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."

CONFLICTING CLAIMS

In a speech to ASEAN leaders reported by Kyodo news agency,Japan's Abe came out squarely in favour of the Southeast Asiangrouping.

Japan has its own territorial dispute with China overislands in the East China Sea and Abe said there were "movesaimed at changing the status quo by force" in the South ChinaSea.

Abe said the dispute had to be resolved in accordance withinternational law and pledged Japan's continuing cooperationwith ASEAN as it was a "common problem" for both.

The United States says it is neutral but has put pressure onChina and other claimants to end the dispute through 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."

As Li and Kerry met for talks on the sidelines of the summitsome tensions were evident.

"I'm sure that we are all committed to living with eachother in harmony and discussing jointly those issues of commoninterest," Li said. "While China is the largest developingcountry in the world, while the United States is the largestdeveloped one in the world."

Li's remark later that the U.S. and Chinese economies wereat "different stages of development" prompted Kerry to respond: "I know you know we think you're a little more developed thanyou may want to say you are, but nevertheless we have the sameresponsibilities."

APPEARANCE OF DIALOGUE

In an apparent softening of its stance, China agreed thisyear to hold "consultations" with ASEAN on a code of conduct(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 itconsolidates 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, Li said the code of conduct talks last month were asuccess and China would be willing to build on that, although hedid 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 China was "unshakable in its resolveto uphold national sovereignty and territorial integrity".

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