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US, China set to clash over maritime dispute
by Staff Writers
Nusa Dua, Indonesia (AFP) Nov 18, 2011

President Barack Obama on Friday hailed the East Asia Summit as the top forum for tackling the region's seething maritime row with China, setting a course for confrontation with Beijing.

The Chinese government has testily declared the South China Sea dispute off-limits at Saturday's talks, to be attended by Obama, China's Premier Wen Jiabao, and 16 other nations including several with claims over the waterway.

But Obama said the gathering, held this year on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, "can be the premier arena for us to be able to work together on a wide range of issues -- maritime security or nonproliferation."

Obama has irritated China with a drive to enhance the US role as a regional power, positioning Marines in northern Australia and pushing for a potentially transformational trans-Pacific trade pact.

Beijing sees the initiatives as intruding into its own sphere of influence, with the dispute over the South China Sea putting the two major world powers' differences into stark focus.

On Friday Wen again warned against interference by "external forces" in the wrangle.

China claims all of the strategic area, as does Taiwan, while four Southeast Asian countries declare ownership of parts of it, with Vietnam and the Philippines accusing Beijing's forces of increasing aggression there.

The region is a conduit for more than one-third of the world's seaborne trade and half its traffic in oil and gas, and major petroleum deposits are believed to lie below the seabed.

Washington says the security of crucial maritime trade routes deserves serious dialogue, even if Saturday's summit -- the first to be attended by a US president -- is not a tribunal for deciding disputes.

At a separate meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino, Obama said the two countries, which have a 60-year-old treaty of alliance, were "looking out for each other when it comes to security".

Manila has this year accused Beijing's forces of firing on Filipino fishermen and cutting an oil exploration ship's cables, while it has itself seized small Chinese fishing boats.

Diplomats in Bali have spoken this week about the challenges members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who held their own summit Friday, face as they manage a balancing act between Beijing and Washington.

China is ASEAN's biggest trading partner, and prefers to negotiate with its weaker regional neighbours individually rather than collectively.

In a meeting with Southeast Asian leaders Friday ahead of the wider East Asia Summit, Wen challenged Obama's stance on the summit discussions and said China had only peaceful intentions towards its neighbours.

"The dispute on the South China Sea is a matter that been going on for years. It should be resolved by the relevant sovereign states through friendly consultation and discussion directly," he said in his speech, released by China's official Xinhua news agency.

"External forces should not use any excuses to interfere," he added. "China will never seek hegemony and we are against any hegemonic behaviour."

China and ASEAN agreed a non-binding "declaration of conduct" to cover the area in 2002, but it has yet to be fully implemented. Plans for a legally enforceable code of conduct remain far from realisation.


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China warns against South China Sea interference
Nusa Dua, Indonesia (AFP) Nov 18, 2011 - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned Friday against outside interference over the South China Sea dispute, in a challenge to Washington which wants to broach the issue at an Asian summit.

"External forces should not use any excuse to interfere," he said in a speech at China's meeting with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders in Indonesia, without directly mentioning the United States.

"The dispute on the South China Sea is a matter that been going on for years. It should be resolved by the relevant sovereign states through friendly consultation and discussion directly," said Wen in a speech released by the state news agency Xinhua.

Several Asian nations have competing claims over parts of the South China Sea, believed to encompass huge oil and gas reserves, while China claims it all. One-third of global seaborne trade passes through the region.

Amid complaints from the Philippines and Vietnam that China is being more aggressive in asserting its territorial claims, Wen insisted it had only peaceful intent.

"China will never seek hegemony and we are against any hegemonic behaviour," he said, adding that his country will "forever be a good neighbor, good friend and good partner of ASEAN".

The South China Sea is a vitally important trading route for the US, which has signalled it will raise the issue during the talks with ASEAN leaders this week, despite Beijing insisting it is not an appropriate topic for discussion.

Wen said China was willing to work with ASEAN countries towards a set of guidelines for implementing a 2002 Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea.

"This is a consensus between China and the ASEAN countries," said the Chinese premier at the summit held on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

"China is willing to work with ASEAN states for the full implementation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, strengthening cooperation, and work on the drafting of the South China Sea Code of Conduct."

The Code of Conduct would be a legally binding set of rules on the conflict, but given the complexity of the issue it remains far from realisation.


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