China’s maritime disputes in the South China Sea are expected to figure in a joint communique the US and ASEAN nations will issue later on Tuesday.
But the message is likely to be a broad one, given how the 10 ASEAN nations at the summit hosted by President Barack Obama are divided over China, its rise and claims.
The summit, which has barely received any attention in US, is aimed at highlighting Obama’s key foreign policy initiative, the Asia pivot, but China is likely to loom large over it.
Officials strenuously denied in the run-up to the summit, being held on a vast ranch in California, that it would be about China, but conceded it would figure for sure.
“Here at this summit, we can advance our shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means,” Obama said on Monday, opening the first ASEAN-only summit held in the US.
India, which is an ASEAN+6 member, will be following the summit closely and looking out for references to the South China Sea dispute, which has begun figuring in its joint statements with the US in recent years, starting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first meeting with Obama in DC in 2014.
China has claimed historical right to most of the South China Sea and built seven islands, some with airstrips, in the Spratly archipelago.
Five ASEAN countries — including the Philippines and Malaysia — have rival claims. Vietnam on Monday urged the US to play a stronger role in the dispute.
Two other ASEAN members, Laos and Cambodia, which have strong ties with China, are expected to push back at the summit, toning down the message.