Clinton Seeks Unified Asean Front to Ease China Disputes

Posted on September 3, 2012


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Indonesia today as part of a regional tour aimed at facilitating a diplomatic solution to Asian maritime disputes without damaging relations with China.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa (not pictured) during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on July 12, 2012. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski via AFP/GettyImages

Clinton wants the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose ambassadors she meets tomorrow in Jakarta, to forge a common position in in its territorial conflicts with China, a State Department official told reporters traveling with her on condition of anonymity because the talks are private. The bloc’s 10 members failed to reach a consensus in July, and China has criticized U.S. attempt to broker a resolution.

The criticism underscores strains between China and the U.S. over rules to promote peaceful maritime trade in an area rich in oil and natural gas as the Obama administration increases its attention to the region. The U.S. needs to prove it is returning to Asia as a “peacemaker, instead of a troublemaker,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary today.

“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.”

Failed Compromise
Clinton will meet Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa tonight and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono tomorrow. She then flies to China for talks with President Hu Jintao and vice president and heir apparent Xi Jinping to discuss the conflicts as well as Iran and North Korea’s nuclear program. The visit to Beijing comes ahead of the Chinese Communist Party Congress meeting this year that will decide on a new generation of leaders.

Asean leaders in July failed to reach consensus on how to handle disputes with China after Cambodia rejected a compromise by 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.

“Countries outside the region should respect the countries concerned and take a stance of non-intervention,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing today.

Military Garrison
The U.S. wants to ensure that the sides are moving toward a diplomatic resolution, the State Department official said.

China is establishing a new military garrison on one of the disputed islands, hedging against efforts by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei to assert control in the area. The region is estimated to have as much as 30 billion metric tons of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of gas, according to Xinhua.

While the U.S. takes no position on the sovereignty claims, stressing instead the need to avoid armed conflict, deputy State Department spokesman Patrick Ventral said last month the establishment of the garrison is “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week that the U.S. doesn’t want to see “the disputes in the South China Sea or anywhere else settled by intimidation, by force. We want to see them settled at the negotiating table.”

Increased Commitment
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.

During her time in Jakarta, Clinton will also discuss Iran’s nuclear program, following a summit that Indonesian officials attended in Tehran, the official said. In China, she will discuss ways to persuade Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear programs, as well as efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria.

Her six-nation, 11-day trip ends with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Russia.