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US, China Discuss South China Sea on Final Day of Bali Summit

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Nusa Dua, in Bali, Indonesia, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011.
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Nusa Dua, in Bali, Indonesia, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011.

U.S. President Barack Obama met in Bali Saturday with China's Premier Wen Jiabao as leaders attending the East Asia Summit brought their meetings to a close.

U.S. officials say the two discussed regional tensions over the South China Sea.

The Obama-Wen meeting, announced by the White House on short notice Saturday morning, occurred before leaders at the summit held a formal plenary session and a working lunch.

Neither commented before or after. But U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said they spoke briefly about the South China Sea issue following up on a conversation from the previous day, and that there would be more discussion among leaders later.

In remarks to ASEAN leaders on Friday, Premier Wen said solutions should not involve "outside forces. . . under any pretext." The comments were widely seen as directed at the U.S.-Australia agreement to base 2,500 U.S. Marines in Australia.

Speaking to reporters Saturday, National Security Adviser Donilon reiterated that the U.S. takes no sides in the South China Sea issue, but believes disputes need to be resolved peacefully.

Donilon said, "The U.S. has an interest in the freedom of navigation, the free flow of commerce, the peaceful resolution of disputes. We don't have a claim, we don't take sides in the claims, but we do as a global maritime power have an interest in seeing these principles applied broadly."

Donilon said he would not comment on the specifics of any nation's claim, but did note that the South China Sea issue was raised by ASEAN countries in discussions Friday.

More broadly, he was asked whether what one reporter called the "sharp tone" Mr. Obama has sounded during his Asia-Pacific trip could lead elements in China's military to believe the U.S. is attempting to isolate or contain China.

Donilon said President Obama has made a point of repeatedly welcoming China's peaceful rise and economic success, and anything he has said during his trip has "nothing to do with isolating or containing anybody."

Donilon said, "The U.S. goal in the region is to have a stable, peaceful, and economically prosperous region and that is in the interests of everyone in the region, including the Chinese."

Donilon said the United States has been "very direct" with China about its plans in the Asia-Pacific region, adding Washington has worked to deepen the "military to military conversation" to achieve more transparency regarding military plans and intentions.

China's regional economic role and its strategic intentions in the South China Sea have been a major focus at this summit as well as during Mr. Obama's nine-day Asia-Pacific trip that emphasized the importance of regional trade.

Mr. Obama said this in his speech to Australian troops and U.S. Marines in Darwin this past week after the announcement of a new military access agreement.

The president said, "There is another reason we are deepening our alliance here. This region has some of the busiest sea lanes in the world, which are critical to all our economies."

National Security Adviser Donilon called the overall U.S. relationship with China complicated. But he said Beijing recognizes that the U.S. is a principle Pacific power intent on meeting its obligations and commitments to partners and allies.

At the same time, he said the U.S. is engaged in an "important conversation" with China about economic issues not limited to currency policies, including what he called areas that "impair the fair access" by the United States and other countries to China's economy.

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