US Secretary of State John Kerry is pressing for peaceful resolutions to increasingly tense maritime disputes in Asia and urging China to take a firmer stand on North Korea’s nuclear program after its recent bomb test.
His first stop is Laos, the current head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose members are becoming more vocal in complaints about China’s growing assertiveness over competing claims in the South China Sea and whose leaders President Barack Obama will host in California next month. Before that summit, US officials say, Kerry will make the case to the leader of the 10-nation bloc to present a unified stance in dealing with China on the disputes, which have grown more intense as China continues to construct man-made islands and airstrips in contested areas.
The United States and governments with rival claims with China in the disputed region, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have expressed alarm over the Chinese construction, saying it raises tensions and threatens regional stability and could violate freedom of navigation and overflight.
But ASEAN unity has not always been possible as China wields great influence among some of its smaller neighbors, such as Cambodia. Cambodia held the ASEAN chair in 2012 and blocked the group from reaching consensus on the South China Sea issue and has frequently sided with China on the matter. A senior State Department official accompanying Kerry in Asia said the US had heard from regional leaders that problems related to Cambodia’s chairmanship “left a black mark on ASEAN and are not to be repeated.” The official said the US believed that Laos would do a better job in balancing ASEAN interests with China.