Clinton Seeks Unified Asean Front To Ease China Disputes
By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan - Sep 3, 2012 11:35 AM CT
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Southeast Asian nations and China to use diplomacy rather than force to settle maritime territorial disputes in a region rich in oil and gas, warning against missteps that might result in armed conflict.
After consultations on the South China Sea tensions with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa tonight in Jakarta, Clinton told reporters that the U.S. “has a national interest” in “the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.”
Rival maritime claims among half a dozen Asian nations have fueled tensions this year. China is establishing a military garrison on a disputed island, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei are asserting their own claims. The region is estimated to have as much as 30 billion metric tons of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of gas, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
The U.S doesn’t take a position on competing territorial claims, Clinton said, “but we believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively together to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats -- and certainly without the use of force.”
Clinton said the U.S. endorses a July 20 declaration of principles on the South China Sea by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as Asean, and urged its members and China to make meaningful progress together toward finalizing a comprehensive “code of conduct” to establish “clear procedures for peacefully addressing disagreements.”
Clinton will meet Asean’s secretary general and its 10 ambassadors tomorrow in Jakarta, and urge them to forge a unified position that will allow them to move forward in negotiations with China. China has criticized U.S. attempts to promote a resolution.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing today that “countries outside the region should respect the countries concerned and take a stance of non- intervention.”
China’s criticism of the U.S. underscores strains over maritime trade in the resource-rich area, as the Obama administration has increased its focus on the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. needs to prove it’s returning to Asia as a “peacemaker, instead of a troublemaker,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary today.
Asean leaders in early July failed to reach consensus on how to handle disputes with China after Cambodia rejected a compromise with the other nine members. At the time, the Chinese government warned nations to avoid mentioning the territorial spats during the meetings and rejected Clinton’s call for adopting a code of conduct to address them.
Indonesia’s foreign minister later managed to negotiate a set of principles among the states, and stressed last night that the declaration is “not meant to be at the expense of any other party” or to “put any other country on the spot or in the corner” - a reference to China.
He said he had a “frank” and good conversation last month with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and that talks to finalize a code of conduct should now move forward.
“The track is quite clear what is ahead of us,” he said. “Absent a code of conduct, absent a process, we can be certain of more incidents and more tensions for the region.”
“In China many ordinary people, including some officials, have the impression that the U.S. is increasingly taking sides,” said Zhao Hong, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute in Singapore. “The U.S. can play a very important role if it can keep its promise not to take sides and maintain a neutral position.”
Clinton insisted she is not backing any nation’s territorial claims, saying the U.S. goal is for all parties to refrain from taking any steps that would stoke tensions or cause a “miscalculation” that could result in a military conflict.
“It is time for diplomacy” and for everyone to “literally calm the waters,” she said, urging tangible progress on a deal ahead of the East Asia Summit in Cambodia in November.
Clinton and Natalegawa also discussed Iran’s nuclear program, following a summit that Indonesian delegates attended in Tehran. The secretary of state said Indonesia shares with the U.S. a “common position that while Iran has a right to the use of peaceful, nuclear energy,” it must abide by its international obligations and not pursue a nuclear weapon.
Tomorrow, Clinton will meet Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to discuss bilateral cooperation on a range of issues, including counter-terrorism, political opening in Myanmar and education, officials on both sides told reporters.
She then flies to China for talks with President Hu Jintao and Vice President and heir apparent Xi Jinping to discuss the maritime conflicts, as well global security concerns, including Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs. The visit to Beijing comes ahead of the Chinese Communist Party Congress meeting this year that will decide on a new generation of leaders.
The Obama administration has increased its commitment to Asia by preserving spending in the region in the face of budget cuts and boosting military cooperation with Australia, Singapore and the Philippines. While that has been welcomed by U.S. allies, China’s state-run media has criticized the moves as an effort to constrain Asia’s biggest economy.
China expects Clinton to explain the “Asia Pivot” policy, especially on issues regarding its core interests, the Xinhua commentary today said.
Her six-nation, 11-day trip ends with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Russia.
To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Jakarta at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com