NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Tension 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 said “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 speech transcript was carried on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
The remark is the latest barb between the two countries in recent weeks, and comes as President Barack Obama has sought to reassert U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific to counter the growing influence of the world’s second-largest economy, China.
Obama said in Australia on Thursday, on his last stop before jetting to the Asia meetings in neighbouring Indonesia, that the U.S. military would expand its Asia-Pacific role, 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 frustration at China’s trade practices and he pushed for a new Asia-Pacific trade deal with some of Beijing’s neighbours.
The moves are seen as an attempt to reassert U.S. leadership in the face of China’s rising 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 were 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 China to try to seek some way forward on the knotty issue of sovereignty, which has flared up again this year with often tense maritime stand-offs that an Australian think tank said could lead to conflict.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged claimants 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, Obama said the maritime dispute was an issue to be discussed by the summit. Indeed, he told India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the East Asia Summit was the “premier arena” for resolving such an issue.
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.
Picking up a similar theme, China’s official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary “the East Asian leaders’ meetings are occasions for regional economic cooperation, not a tribunal for quarrels over complex security or maritime issues”.
Obama has said the increased focus on the Asia-Pacific region was essential for America’s economic future, a point he emphasised 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. aircraft.
“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.”
Under U.S plans to expand its military role in the Asia-Pacific, U.S. Marines, ships and aircraft will be deployed to northern Australia from 2012. By 2016, the deployment will reach a taskforce of 2,500 U.S. troops, 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, and closer to the South China Sea.
Obama on Thursday acknowledged China’s unease at what it sees as attempts by the United States to encircle it, pledging to seek greater cooperation with Beijing.
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 internatonal affairs.
China’s official reaction has been restrained, with an impending leadership succession preoccupying the Communist Party and leaving it anxious to avoid diplomatic fireworks.
Additional reporting by Michael Perry in Sydney; Writing by Neil Fullick and Alex Richardson; Editing by Robert Birsel