WASHINGTON/BRUNEI — China has offered to improve ties with Southeast Asia, using a regional summit to compete for influence with the United States, whose President Barack Obama was notable for his absence.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Brunei on Wednesday, pledging to boost Chinese investment in the region.
Mr. Li also struck a conciliatory tone on long-running maritime disputes with ASEAN members. He said Beijing believes that "a peaceful South China Sea is a blessing for all" and that rival claims to the resource-rich waters should should be resolved through talks.
President Barack Obama had planned to meet with ASEAN leaders in Brunei but canceled his attendance to deal with domestic budgetary disputes that led to the partial shutdown of the U.S. federal government.
In his place, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with the 10 ASEAN leaders after the group ended its talks with China's premier. Kerry apologized to the leaders for Mr. Obama's absence.
"I assure you that these events in Washington are a moment in politics and not more than that," Kerry said.
The top U.S. diplomat also tried to reassure ASEAN about Mr. Obama's commitment to the decades-old U.S. relationship with Southeast Asian nations.
Kerry said strengthening U.S.-ASEAN relations in the fields of security, economic links, and people-to-people relationships are a "critical part" of the president's goal of "rebalancing" U.S. foreign policy toward toward Asia.
The top U.S. diplomat also met with Chinese Premier Li on the sidelines of the summit, prompting an exchange of remarks that reflected some tension between the two world powers in their outreach to ASEAN.
Mr. Li said he is sure both powers want to live together in "harmony," but repeated China's longstanding position that it is a developing nation that cannot be held to the same standards as the United States, the world's most developed country.
Kerry replied by saying "we think you are a little more developed than you may want to say you are, but nevertheless we have the same responsibilities."
Senior U.S. officials traveling with Kerry emphasized that he would meet every head of government who would have sat down with Mr. Obama had he made the trip. Kerry even had one additional meeting scheduled with Burmese President Thein Sein.
U.S. officials also said Kerry would press China to accept a long-delayed, legally binding Code of Conduct to help manage the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, where four ASEAN members have competing claims with Beijing.
A senior State Department official told reporters en route to Brunei that Kerry would stress America's role "as an advocate for the rule of law, peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation, and the principle of unimpeded lawful commerce."
Reporters asked ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh about progress on the Code of Conduct. In reply, he referred to recent discussions in China between ASEAN and Chinese officials.
"The consultations will continue," he said. "And we hope that with the efforts on both sides, realizing that peace and stability in the region is necessary, not only for ASEAN but for all countries in the region including China, we will achieve tangible progress."
China is reluctant to discuss the disputes at multinational forums such as ASEAN. Instead, it prefers dealing with each country individually, giving it a much stronger position in any negotiations.
ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines accuse China of using bullying tactics in the South China Sea and have formed closer military alliances with the United States as a result. Beijing has rejected the accusations.
China also denies that it is trying to divide ASEAN. Those accusations intensified following last year's ASEAN meeting in Cambodia, where disagreements over territorial disputes kept the bloc from producing a group statement for the first time in its 45-year history.
Hal Hill, a professor of Southeast Asian economies at the Australian National University, said Beijing partly did use a "divide and rule" strategy at last year's summit. He said many Southeast Asian countries face a tough choice when dealing with China.
"The states adjoining China are very small, very poor countries next to a colossus, so they have to balance the importance of their relations with China, which is of course now the dominant economic and commercial power in the region, along with their attachment to ASEAN," he said.
Hill said he expected ASEAN to form a "broadly united front" against China on the maritime disputes at this year's summit.
ASEAN members also were hoping to advance talks on a proposed free trade area spanning the entire Southeast Asian region, which is home to more than 600 million people. ASEAN wants to create the common market area by 2015.
Hill said the many different types of economies represented in ASEAN pose challenges for the creation of such a free trade area.
"It includes free-trade Singapore along with some communist regimes like Vietnam that have a lot of trade protections," he said. "ASEAN can't move and won't move like the European Union, but I think it will send a signal that it's open for business with increasingly open frontiers within the 10 [nations]."
Lipin reported from Washington and Herman reported from Brunei. Victor Beatie also contributed to this report.