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US-China tensions risk spilling over into Asia summit

Tensions between the United States and China threaten to spill over into meetings of Asia-Pacific leaders on Friday, with US President Barack Obama declaring his intention on the eve of the gathering to assert US influence in the region.

world Updated: Nov 18, 2011 09:09 IST

Tensions between the United States and China threaten to spill over into meetings of Asia-Pacific leaders on Friday, with US President Barack Obama declaring his intention on the eve of the gathering to assert US influence in the region.

Obama said in Australia on Thursday, on his last stop before jetting to the meetings in neighbouring Indonesia, that the US military would expand its Asia-Pacific role despite budget cuts, declaring America was "here to stay" as a Pacific power.

Days earlier, as host of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-Operation forum in Hawaii, Obama had voiced growing frustration at China's trade practices and pushed for a new Asia-Pacific trade deal with some of Beijing's neighbours.

The Indonesia meetings, on the resort island of Bali, bring together the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and eight regional powers, including the United States, China, Russia and Japan. Bilateral meetings are held on Friday before a full East Asia summit on Saturday.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this week urged claimants to the South China Sea not to resort to intimidation to push their cause in the potentially rich waters, an indirect reference to China ahead of the Bali summit.

China and several ASEAN countries have clashed over sovereignty of the waters, believed to be rich in natural resources and straddling vital trade lanes.

Clinton called for candid discussion of the maritime dispute at the summit, which could embolden some Southeast Asian countries with maritime claims, though China says it does not want such talks to take place and that the issue should be resolved via bilateral negotiations.

"Bringing political and security issues into the East Asia Summit, especially if they involve specific disputes, will be of no help in fostering East Asian cooperation," said the overseas edition of the People's Daily, the official paper of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, in a front page commentary on Friday.

"And on the contrary could open up a Pandora's Box and inflame regional tensions."

The People's Daily generally reflects official thinking, and the small-circulation overseas edition often states views more bluntly than the bigger domestic edition.

Vital economic interest
Obama has said the increased focus on the Asia-Pacific region was essential for America's economic future, a point he emphasised on Friday as executives from Boeing Co and Indonesia's Lion Air signed an agreement for the low cost carrier to buy $21.7 billion worth of US planes.

"This is a remarkable example of the trade, investment and commercial opportunities that exist in the Asia-Pacific region," he said of Boeing's biggest commercial order.

"This is an example of a win-win situation where people in the region are going to be able to benefit from outstanding airlines, and our workers back home are going to be able to have job security."

Earlier in his Asian trip Obama declared that U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region was "absolutely critical", feeding China's longstanding fears of being encircled by the United States and its allies.

"As we end today's wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority," Obama said on Thursday in a major speech on Washington's vision for the Asia-Pacific region.

Nervous about China's growing clout, US allies such as Japan and South Korea have sought assurances from the United States that it would be a strong counterweight in the region.

Military Deployment
A first step in extending the US military reach into Southeast Asia will see US Marines, naval ships and aircraft deployed to northern Australia from 2012.

That deployment to Australia, which by 2016 will reach a taskforce of 2,500 US troops, is small compared with the 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan.

But the presence in Darwin, only 820 km (500 miles) from Indonesia, will allow the United States to quickly reach into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Obama acknowledged China's unease at what it sees as attempts by Washington to encircle it, pledging to seek greater cooperation with Beijing.

He added: "We'll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation."

The new de facto US base in Australia expands the direct US military presence in Asia beyond South Korea and Japan and into Southeast Asia, an area where China has growing economic and strategic interests.

It will also put more US troops, ships and aircraft much closer to the South China Sea.

China has questioned the new US deployment, with a foreign ministry spokesman raising doubts about whether strengthening such alliances helped the region pull together at a time of economic gloom.

But overall its official reaction has been restrained, with an impending leadership succession preoccupying the ruling Communist Party and leaving Beijing anxious to avoid diplomatic fireworks.