US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Indonesia yesterday hoping to encourage unity among Southeast Asian nations in an effort to manage increasingly tense disputes with China.
Clinton’s last trip to the region, in July, was marred by the failure of ASEAN to reach a consensus at talks in Cambodia, amid divisions in the 10-member group on how to deal with a rising China.
The top US diplomat was scheduled to meet Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa shortly after arriving in Jakarta, and today will hold talks with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and visit the headquarters of ASEAN, as part of her effort to promote ties with the economically dynamic and mostly US-friendly bloc.
She hopes “to get a sense of where we are and to get the Indonesians’ advice about how we can be supportive, how we can put more wind into the sails of a diplomatic effort, which is what we all very much want,” a senior US official said on her plane on condition of anonymity.
“The most important thing is that we end up in a diplomatic process where these issues are addressed in a strong diplomatic conversation between a unified ASEAN and China, rather than through any kind of coercion,” the official said.
Clinton, who made a refueling stop in Brisbane, Australia, on her way from a South Pacific summit in the Cook Islands, will head to China later today for talks on the often uneasy relationship between the world’s two largest economies.
The Philippines and Vietnam have both accused China of an intimidation campaign over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a waterway through which half of the world’s cargo sails.
Clinton, in a visit to Vietnam in 2010, buoyed Southeast Asian nations by declaring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to be a US national interest, although she said that Washington would not take sides over disputes.
The US recently issued an unusually strong warning to China after Beijing angered Southeast Asian nations by establishing a remote garrison in the South China Sea. China accused Clinton of seeking to “contain” its rise.
The official on Clinton’s plane said the US supported a recent statement of principles by ASEAN foreign ministers, who pledged unity and the early completion with China of a code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.
The US has strongly encouraged work on a code, believing it is vital to preventing flare-ups from escalating, but Beijing has preferred to negotiate separately with ASEAN nations instead of dealing with a united bloc.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said that too much attention on the issue could prove counterproductive.
“We just hope that all the attention and the concern would not add to the fragility and instability over the issue. We want a conducive environment that would enable us to achieve the COC as soon as possible. As a major dialogue partner, the US certainly has a role to play and a contribution to make,” he said.
Clinton will later in the week visit Brunei, making her the first US secretary of state to visit all 10 ASEAN nations. Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) in August visited Indonesia and Brunei and took a conciliatory tone.