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November 19, 2011 3:48 pm
Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, held talks with Barack Obama, US president, on Saturday on the sidelines of a regional summit which raised disputes in the South China Sea and contentious plans for a US military base in Australia.
Officials said Washington’s announcement that it would station 2,500 marines in Australia, along with tensions in the South China Sea, were the major themes discussed behind closed doors by 18 heads of state at the East Asia Summit which included China Russia and the US for the first time.
China had warned in advance that it did not want the Summit – which followed a meeting of the 10-country Association of South East Asian Nations – to stray into contentious areas, saying it was an inappropriate venue for such discussions. In a veiled warning to Washington, it said it would not appreciate US involvement in its disputes with Asean countries over the resource-rich South China Sea.
Beijing’s wishes were openly dismissed by Asean leaders, Canberra and Mr Obama. Participants in the summit wanted to discuss “issues that have implications on geo-economics, issues of strategic security, stability,” Surin Pitsuwan, Asean secretary general, told the Financial Times in an interview. “Leaders would like to exchange views.”
He conceded however that the East Asia Summit was not the place to “resolve the issues because they can only talk about generalities and principles - and that’s what some have done today.” Julia Gillard, Australian prime minister, raised the matter of US troops with Mr Wen during private meetings on Saturday. She conveyed Canberra’s firm position that a US presence in Asia is an important force for stability in the region.
In comments released in an official statement on Friday, Mr Wen said long-running disputes over the South China Sea should be settled through “friendly consultation and negotiation between the sovereign states directly concerned…Outside forces should not get involved under any excuse”.
The remarks were prompted by a foreign policy speech earlier this week in which Mr Obama promised a robust US presence in Asia.
Some Asean leaders, albeit uncomfortable with China’s growing power, privately expressed concerns about having US troops stationed so close to their borders. They fear being caught between Washington and Beijing as the superpowers jostle for political and economic influence. Asean, with annual gross domestic product of nearly $2,000bn and 600m people, is an important market for both China and the US.
Throughout recent global economic crises, the Asean countries, which are relatively poor but rich in natural resources, have maintained strong economic growth, boosting their influence in regional politics. The South China Sea has large unexplored energy resources and sea lanes vital to all of east Asia. But it is seeing rising levels of tension between China, which claims almost all of it, and several Asean members – including the Philippines and Vietnam – which have competing claims. Despite relative calm since Beijing held talks with Hanoi in July, the past two years have seen frequent clashes between fishing and oil prospecting vessels on the one hand and various official ships from China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
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