China seeks to soothe sea rifts at Asia summit

Asian leaders met against a backdrop of divisive territorial disputes and flagging free trade efforts Wednesday, with China flexing more diplomatic muscle in the absence of US President Barack Obama.

AFP| Updated: Oct 09, 2013, 11:16 AM IST

Bandar Seri Begawan: Asian leaders met against a backdrop of divisive territorial disputes and flagging free trade efforts Wednesday, with China flexing more diplomatic muscle in the absence of US President Barack Obama.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang takes the baton at the meetings in Brunei from President Xi Jinping, who took centre-stage at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bali with Obama stuck at home due to the US government shutdown.

The two days of talks in Brunei also include the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

In Brunei, Obama`s top diplomat John Kerry will shoulder the task of showing support for America`s Asian allies, wary over Beijing`s uncompromising territorial claims to areas including most of the South China Sea.

But Li signalled he would extend a Southeast Asian charm offensive launched earlier this week by Xi, saying China`s relations with the region were at a "historical starting point".

"China will in no way follow the old pattern of `seeking hegemony after becoming strong`," Li said in an interview published in Brunei media.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei -- all members of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- also have various claims to the strategic South China Sea.

Obama had said earlier in the year he planned during the Brunei gathering to lend his presidential prestige to calls for a speedy agreement between China and ASEAN on a Code of Conduct at sea to avoid accidental conflict.

But analysts said Obama`s absence deprives ASEAN the chance to rally behind US power.

"To some degree, (Obama`s absence) has lessened the prominence of sovereignty issues in the South China Sea at the summit," said Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing.

"And maybe the Chinese role will become more prominent as a result."

China has succeeded in lowering temperatures by agreeing recently to join with ASEAN in initial talks toward a code of conduct, though some experts view that as a bid to buy time as Beijing continues to build its regional clout.

"(China) is not going to compromise on its claims," said Ian Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

China signalled ahead of the meetings that it would not look kindly on attempts to raise sea disputes at an expanded East Asia Summit of 18 nations on Thursday, in comments that appeared aimed at Washington.

The South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop vast deposits of oil and natural gas, has long been regarded as a potential military flashpoint.

Territorial tensions between Japan and neighbouring China and South Korea have also soared in recent years.

The three countries were each set to hold separate bilateral talks with the ASEAN bloc on Wednesday, as well as a group gathering between ASEAN and the three East Asian powers.

However, reflecting deep-seated mistrust over maritime disputes, Beijing ruled out bilateral talks between Li and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Brunei.

With the region facing increasing economic headwinds, trade was high on the agenda at the talks in the oil-rich sultanate.

ASEAN, a region of 600 million people, wants to establish a common market and manufacturing base to better compete with economic powers China and India, but there are growing doubts about whether it will meet its 2015 target.
"Overall the outlook for the ASEAN region remains promising," Brunei`s ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, said at the opening of the summit.

"Nonetheless, with two years
left to go we still face challenges in implementing our community roadmap," he added.

ASEAN is also pushing an ambitious 16-nation free trade zone called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which also involves Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

The initiative is seen as rivalling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact championed by Washington.

Later on Wednesday, ASEAN also holds talks with US Secretary of State Kerry.