UNITED NATIONS — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says China and Southeast Asian nations should resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea without threats or force. The U.S. is making an effort to work more closely with Indonesia to help mediate those rival maritime claims.
Southeast Asia is home to some of the world's busiest ports and most critical sea lanes, so stability there matters deeply to prosperity abroad, says Kerry.
"It matters around the worldm" he said. "That’s one of the reasons why the United States is so committed to maritime security, to the freedom of navigation on the seas, and to resolving the disputes with respect to territory and achieving a code of conduct with respect to that."
A code of conduct is critical to unimpeded lawful commerce, Kerry told a meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
"That’s why China and ASEAN should move as swiftly as possible to reach a binding code of conduct for addressing disputes without threats, without coercion, and without use of force," he said.
China is facing competing claims in the South China Sea from the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan. But the disputes affect different ASEAN members differently, diluting the urgency of a code of conduct, says Asia analyst Michael Auslin.
"You don't have unanimity on the part of ASEAN behind the scenes to say this is our top-drawer issue," he said. "There are some who think it's crucial. And there are others who say it's not as important, and so the longer it drags out, the easier it is for us to avoid a day of reckoning with China."
As part of its so-called "Asia Pivot," the United States is boosting military and commercial activity, which contributes to stability, says Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.
"We appreciate very much the United States government on a strong, secure, and prosperous Southeast Asia." Lwin said. "The positive stance of the Untied States has promoted peace, stability, and prosperity."
As part of talks on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Kerry met with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia. Jakarta is central to resolving South China Sea disputes, says Auslin.
"From the eastern Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific, you don't get more strategically positioned than that in terms of the sets of concerns that it has to deal with," he said. "Whether it's piracy, whether it's proliferation, narcotics trafficking, the rise of the Chinese navy and military or the like, Indonesia is the centrally located country."
Washington is selling Jakarta eight Apache attack helicopters for $500 million, an upgrade that Indonesia says reflects greater military investments across the region.
The Philippines is modernizing its navy and has one of the most contentious maritime claims with China, making Indonesia's involvement all the more important, says Auslin.
"There are deep divisions within ASEAN. The view of the Philippines, for example, over territorial issues is very different from Indonesia," he said. "And the reason Indonesia can play a broker's role is because they don't have any of the territorial disputes with China."
The Philippines is taking its case against China to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. But Beijing is rejecting Manila's push for international arbitration.