China tells US, Japan to stay out of sea dispute
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urged the United States, Japan and other countries Thursday to stay out of territorial disputes between China and some Association of Southeast Asian Nations members over the South China Sea.
"China and ASEAN have agreed that the disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully through consultations and negotiations between countries directly concerned, and countries that are not parties to the disputes should not get involved," Li told the East Asia Summit in Brunei.
Li, who attended ASEAN-related summits for the first time since he became premier in March, added freedom of navigation in the South China Sea "has never been an issue and will never be one."
In the 18-nation summit, ASEAN countries and the United States are believed to have called for advancing talks between ASEAN and China on a legally binding code of conduct aimed at reducing territorial and maritime conflicts in the South China Sea, all or parts of which is claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The United States has not publicly taken sides, but U.S. officials have reiterated Washington's interest in freedom of navigation in the sea and its eagerness to see an effective code signed.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino quoted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who attended the EAS on behalf of President Barack Obama, as saying Wednesday that ASEAN and China need to speed up negotiations to craft the code as the absence of one "adds to the sense of uncertainty" in the region.
Reflecting the mood, a draft of the chairman's statement "welcomed" the launch of official consultations on the code in September and "underscored the urgency" of ASEAN and China to adopt "a substantive and detailed code of conduct" that contributes to the effective settlement of conflicts.
China, however, appears to be cool to such an initiative.
In a meeting with ASEAN leaders Wednesday, Li said Beijing does not want to "internationalize" the disputes and prefers to address them "bilaterally" with other claimants, according to an ASEAN diplomatic source.
In addition to Li, Aquino and Kerry, other EAS participants included Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Park Geun Hye, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Abe told the ASEAN leaders Wednesday all the countries concerned should be guided by international law and refrain from unilateral action and the use of force, an apparent reference to Beijing's increasingly assertive claim to most of the disputed sea, which has some of the world's busiest shipping routes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas.
On Wednesday, Kerry apologized to the ASEAN leaders for Obama's cancellation of a series of ASEAN-related meetings, including the summit, due to the U.S. government's partial shutdown, but Kerry stressed the U.S. rebalancing of its strategic focus toward Asia, which is seen as a move to check China's rise, remains unchanged.
Strengthening security, economic and people-to-people ties with ASEAN are "a critical part of President Obama's rebalance to Asia," Kerry said. "That rebalance is a commitment, it is there to stay, and will continue into the future."
Along with maritime security, the EAS leaders are believed to have discussed the regional economy, the civil war in Syria and North Korea's nuclear programs.
The EAS comprises the 10 members of ASEAN -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.