NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) – Tensions between the United States and China spilled over into meetings of Asia-Pacific leaders on Friday as the two countries jostled over how to handle competing claims to the South China Sea.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao demanded that “outside forces” had no excuse to get involved in the complex maritime dispute, a veiled warning to the United States and other countries to keep out of the sensitive issue.
“It ought to be resolved through friendly consultations and discussions by countries directly involved. Outside forces should not, under any pretext, get involved,” Wen told a meeting with Southeast Asian leaders, several of whose countries claim sovereignty to parts of the South China Sea.
The comments were carried on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website (http://www.mfa.gov.cn).
The remark is the latest barb between the two countries in recent weeks when President Barack Obama has sought to reassert U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region to counter the growing influence of China, its biggest economic rival.
Obama said in Australia on Thursday, on his last stop before jetting to the Asia meetings in neighboring Indonesia, that the U.S. military would expand its Asia-Pacific role despite budget cuts, declaring America was “here to stay” as a Pacific power.
Days earlier, as host of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-Operation forum in Hawaii, Obama had voiced growing frustration at China’s trade practices and he pushed for a new Asia-Pacific trade deal with some of Beijing’s neighbors.
The moves are seen as an attempt to reassert U.S. leadership to counter China’s growing influence around the Pacific Rim and reassure allies such as South Korea and Japan that it would remain a strong counterweight.
The United States wants the dispute over the South China Sea discussed on the Indonesian resort island of Bali at meetings of the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and eight regional powers, including the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
Bilateral meetings are being held on Friday before a full East Asia summit on Saturday.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are the other claimants to parts of the South China Sea, a major route for some $5 trillion in trade each year and potentially rich in resources.
The Southeast Asian countries along with the United States and Japan, are pressuring Beijing to try and seek some way forward on the knotty issue of sovereignty, which has flared up again this year with often tense maritime stand-offs.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged claimants earlier this week not to resort to intimidation to push their cause, itself an indirect reference to China, which lays claim to large swathes of the sea.
In bilateral meetings on Friday, Obama said the dispute should be discussed by the regional leaders at the talks, known as the East Asia Summit, which could embolden some Southeast Asian countries with claims.
Japan added its voice to the call, saying those with claims should “seek a peaceful resolution in a transparent matter based on international law.”
China though is adamant it does not want such talks to take place and that the issue should be resolved via bilateral negotiations. Raising the issue in multilateral summit talks would not help foster East Asian co-operation, it argues.
“On the contrary, this could open up a Pandora’s Box and inflame regional tensions,” the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, the official paper of the ruling Communist Party, said on Friday in a front page commentary.
The People’s Daily generally reflects official thinking, and the small-circulation overseas edition often states views more bluntly than the bigger domestic edition.
VITAL ECONOMIC INTEREST
Obama has said the increased focus on the Asia-Pacific region was essential for America’s economic future, a point he emphasized on Friday as executives from Boeing Co and Indonesia’s Lion Air signed an agreement for the low cost carrier to buy $21.7 billion worth of U.S. planes.
“This is a remarkable example of the trade, investment and commercial opportunities that exist in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said of Boeing’s biggest commercial order.
“This is an example of a win-win situation where people in the region are going to be able to benefit from outstanding airlines, and our workers back home are going to be able to have job security.
A first step in extending the U.S. military reach into Southeast Asia will see U.S. Marines, naval ships and aircraft deployed to northern Australia from 2012.
That deployment to Australia, which by 2016 will reach a taskforce of 2,500 U.S. troops, is small compared with the 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan.
But the de facto base in Darwin, only 820 km (500 miles) from Indonesia, expands the direct U.S. military presence in Asia beyond South Korea and Japan and into Southeast Asia, an area where China has growing economic and strategic interests.
It will also put more U.S. troops, ships and aircraft much closer to the South China Sea and will allow the United States to quickly reach into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Obama on Thursday acknowledged China’s unease at what it sees as attempts by Washington to encircle it, pledging to seek greater cooperation with Beijing.
China has questioned the new U.S. deployment, with a foreign ministry spokesman raising doubts about whether strengthening such alliances helped the region pull together at a time of economic gloom.
From the APEC meeting last week to the president’s sweep through Asia, Obama has used some of his strongest language against China, which some analysts suggest is largely focused on the U.S. domestic audience ahead of elections next year.
Last week in Hawaii, he demanded that China stop “gaming” the international system. He said China, which often presents itself as a developing country, is now “grown up” and should act that way in international affairs.
China’s official reaction has been restrained, with an impending leadership succession preoccupying the Communist Party and leaving Beijing anxious to avoid diplomatic fireworks.
(Additional reporting by Michael Perry in Sydney; Writing by Neil Fullick and Alex Richardson; Editing by Ron Popeski)
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