BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei — The United States and China wrestled for influence in Southeast Asia on Wednesday as regional leaders opened an annual summit where the Chinese looked to take advantage of the absence of U.S. President Barack Obama to showcase their rising global clout.
Gathering in tiny, oil-rich Brunei, the leaders of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations met first together before holding group discussions with their non-member partners, including the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and India. All are seeking a greater presence in the region, but the United States and China are the two heavyweights and have long been jostling for position, even as they publicly deny rivalry and competition.
Although its annual meeting is often derided for being more talk than action, ASEAN and its 10 nations are a prized catch politically and economically in the rivalry between a rising China and a United States that has been trying to reassert dominance in the region of more than half a billion people.
Filling in for Obama, as he did earlier this week at an Asia-Pacific economic conference in Indonesia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to highlight America's decades-long partnership with the region and urged the ASEAN members to stand united in their efforts to blunt China's increasing assertiveness in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Several ASEAN nations, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, have sought U.S. support in standing up to China.
Chinese premier Li Keqiang, meanwhile, spoke of major new Chinese investment and development initiatives. When it came to the South China Sea, he essentially told the ASEAN leaders that the United States should butt out.
"We all agree the disputes in the South China Sea should be addressed in consultation and in negotiations with the parties directly concerned," Li said in his opening remarks to the ASEAN-China meeting. That meeting, scheduled immediately before the ASEAN-U.S. event, went on well past its scheduled duration, forcing Kerry to cool his heels at a Brunei government guest house for nearly an hour.
When his meeting did begin, Kerry felt obliged, as he had in Indonesia, to open his comments with an apology for Obama's absence and a vow that the United States would remain deeply involved in the Asia-Pacific.
"I assure you that these events in Washington are moment in politics and not more than that," he said, referring to the government shutdown that kept Obama at home. "The partnership that we share with ASEAN remains a top priority for the Obama administration."
"Strengthening those ties on security issues, economic issues and more ... (is) a critical part of President Obama's rebalance to Asia," Kerry added. "That rebalance is a commitment. It is there to stay and it will continue into the future."
Both Li and Kerry spoke about trade in their remarks to the leaders of ASEAN, which wants to transform itself by the end of 2015 into a European Union-like community with a freer flow of goods, services and investment.
But while trade is high on the broader ASEAN agenda, long-seething rifts over contested territories in the busy South China Sea are once again sparking friction.
The bloc has been struggling to manage the disputes, which many fear could ignite Asia's next major armed conflict. China and Taiwan claim the resource-rich waters and their chains of islands, islets and reefs virtually in their entirety, while ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam lay claim to some parts.
Vietnam and the Philippines have had recent skirmishes with Chinese ships in the sea, igniting fresh tensions.
Chinese and Philippine diplomats squabbled Tuesday over the wording of a paragraph on the territorial rifts in a joint statement to be issued by Chinese and ASEAN leaders after they met Wednesday, two Philippine diplomats told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
When asked by Southeast Asian journalists, who sent in their questions in writing, about fears that China might seek hegemony in the region with its growing military might, Li portrayed his country as a gentle giant which has had no track record of expansionism in Asia — unlike Western powers.
But while China is firmly committed to a peaceful rise, Li said it "is unshakable in its resolve to uphold national sovereignty and territorial integrity."
According to U.S. officials, Kerry is encouraging the ASEAN countries to continue to work "for enhanced coherence and unity" among themselves to bolster their position with China in negotiating a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
China has bristled at what it sees as U.S. interference in its backyard and has only reluctantly agreed to open consultations with ASEAN on a code of conduct. It has also aggressively lobbied some ASEAN members to prevent a consensus on the matter.
The U.S. weighed in on the issue during Obama's first term, when Washington announced it had a national security interest in keeping the world's busiest commercial sea lanes open and peacefully resolving competing territorial claims based on freedom of navigation.
One U.S. official said the United States and ASEAN are now in "violent agreement" on the principles of freedom of navigation and negotiated settlements to the territorial disputes.
After their separate meetings with the ASEAN leaders, Li and Kerry met each other. While each extolled a new chapter in Washington-Beijing ties, some friction was evident.
"I am sure that we are committed to living with each other in harmony," Li told Kerry, while repeating China's long-standing position that it is far from a developed country and as such cannot be expected to live up to the same standards as the West.
In his remarks, Kerry offered a tart rejoinder.
"We think you are a little more developed that you may want to say you are, but nevertheless we have the same responsibility regardless," Kerry said.