U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has begun a visit to Indonesia by urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China to agree on a code of conduct for resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Speaking in Jakarta late Monday, Clinton said the United States has a national interest in maintaining stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which is home to islands claimed by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. She called on the parties not to increase tensions through "coercive" or "intimidating" steps to advance their claims.
Clinton made the comments at a joint news conference with her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalagawa. The United States has been urging Indonesia and ASEAN's nine other members to reach a consensus on enforcing a code of conduct for the South China Sea before persuading China, which is not a member of ASEAN, to also adopt the guidelines.
The code of conduct would be aimed at preventing sovereignty disputes from escalating in the resource-rich waters that include key shipping lanes for international cargo. China has preferred to negotiate the disputes individually with the rival claimants.
ASEAN failed to agree on enforcement guidelines for a code of conduct at a summit in July. The regional body is headquartered in Jakarta.
The United States has said it takes no position on the sovereignty of the South China Sea islands in dispute but it also criticized China's recent establishment of a military garrison in the disputed waters as a provocative move.
Chinese Foreign Minister spokesman Hong Lei said Monday Beijing hopes the United States will promote peace and stability in the region by "not taking sides" in Chinese maritime disputes with neighboring states. Clinton travels to China later Tuesday for two days of talks with senior Chinese leaders.
Clinton arrived in Jakarta from the Cook Islands, where she began a six-nation Asia-Pacific tour. She was due to meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Tuesday. Her talks also were expected to include trade and human rights issues.
U.S. exports to Indonesia increased to $7.4 billion in 2011 from $5.1 billion in 2009. Indonesian imports to the United States rose to $19.1 billion from $12.9 billion in the same period.
In Monday's news conference, Clinton said she and Natalagawa agreed that there should be no discrimination against religious minorities. Earlier, a U.S. official said Clinton viewed recent incidents of Islamist mob violence against Indonesian minorities as "disturbing" and planned to ask how authorities will respond to the problem.
U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch
issued a statement Sunday urging Clinton to raise the issue with the Indonesian government. It accused Jakarta of implementing what it called "oppressive laws and policies against religious minorities [that] fuel violence and discrimination."
Indonesia is world's largest Muslim-majority nation.