2011/11/18

Obama: East Asia Summit key to maritime disputes

NUSA DUA, November 18, 2011 (AFP) - President Barack Obama, who will become the first US leader to attend the East Asia Summit Saturday, hailed the grouping as the top forum for tackling seething regional maritime disputes.

China has balked at directly discussing territorial rows including rival claims by regional nations over the South China Sea in such a meeting, but Washington says the security of vital trade routes deserves serious dialogue.

The summit "can be the premier arena for us to be able to work together on a wide range of issues -- maritime security or nonproliferation," Obama said Friday.

The US president also said the grouping of 10 Southeast Asian nations plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, the United States and Russia was also key to developing cooperation on disaster relief and aid.

Obama spoke as he met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the first of a string of one-on-one talks on the eve of the summit, which includes sessions with the leaders of Thailand and the Philippines.

Singh told Obama that he was happy to report "that there are today no irritants whatsoever in our working together in a multiplicity of areas, both bilateral, regional and global issues."

Obama, who has irritated China during a Pacific tour designed to highlight a new US push in Asia, visited India a year ago and many analysts in Washington see the country as a counterweight to China's rise to superpower status.

US officials say that while the East Asia Summit is not a tribunal for deciding rival territorial claims, issues like the South China Sea dispute deserve an airing at regional meetings.

But on Tuesday Beijing, alluding to the strategic role that the United States intends to continue to play, stressed that territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be handled by the nations affected.

Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan are locked in disputes with China over conflicting claims to the Spratlys and other islands in the oil-rich South China Sea.