JAKARTA — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Indonesia Tuesday with Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to discuss rival territorial claims to the South China Sea.
According to senior State Department officials, Clinton also met with permanent representatives to the regional body's secretariat to seek their advice on how the United States can help resolve the competing territorial claims.
The Obama administration is encouraging ASEAN members to work as a group in negotiating a code of conduct with China to set parameters for resolving the dispute, saying all involved nations - China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines - have an interest in maintaining regional peace and stability.
"The United States believes very strongly that no party should take any steps that would increase tensions or do anything that could be viewed as coercive or intimidating to advance their territorial claims," she said.
Encouraging ASEAN unity, she says, is not just about China, but also about resolving rival maritime claims within the group itself.
"There are many claimants — it’s not just ASEAN members claiming vis-a-vis China — so this is in everyone’s interest and it is time for diplomacy," she said, explaining that the upcoming East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, scheduled for November, represents an opportunity to make progress on a "robust code of conduct to literally calm the waters."
Her meeting with ASEAN leaders follows talks with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyon, whose foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, who has also made calls to establish a code of conduct, describing it as ASEAN's clear path.
"Absent a code of conduct, absent a diplomatic process, we can be certain of more incidents and more tension for our region," he said. "So it is a win-win relationship. It is not only right that ASEAN must be united, but it is also the smart thing to do, because absent an ASEAN unity, the question will become like a loose cannon in the way the issue is being discussed."
Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea will be part of Secretary Clinton's talks in Beijing and Brunei as well as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Russia.