Obama Highlights Maritime Security as China and Philippines Spar

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference following the closing plenary session of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S., on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011. Photographer: Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama said the East Asia Summit he is attending in Indonesia is the “premier” arena to discuss concerns over maritime security, a topic China has resisted addressing at international forums.

The gathering “can be the premier area for us to be able to work together on a wide range of issues: maritime security or nonproliferation,” Obama said at the beginning of a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Bali.

His comments come as the Philippines pushes for resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea when Southeast Asian leaders meet later with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who has sought to keep the issue off the agenda. The Philippines has called on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to facilitate talks with China over disputed areas of the sea that contain oil and gas resources.

“This is not an issue that can be isolated between China and the Philippines,” Ricky Carandang, a spokesman for President Benigno Aquino, told reporters yesterday. “This is an issue that involves many countries in the region, and the more we’re able to discuss this in an atmosphere of candor brings us closer to ultimately finding some kind of solution.”

Asean leaders are also meeting today with Obama, whose administration has pledged to bolster the naval defenses of the Philippines, a treaty ally. Obama arrived yesterday from Australia, where he signed an agreement to deploy U.S. Marines in a move aimed to blunt China’s rising influence in the region.

Obama told reporters today in Bali that he and Aquino had discussed maritime security issues in a meeting.

Territorial Claims

American military and diplomatic backing has emboldened the Philippines to press its territorial claims against China, Asia’s biggest economy and military spender. The U.S. aims to balance China in the region to ensure “there isn’t kind of a big thumb on the scale,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Manila two days ago.

The U.S. presence “bolsters our ability to assert our sovereignty over certain areas,” Carandang said.

Asean is not an appropriate forum to discuss the South China Sea dispute, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said yesterday in Beijing. China prefers one-on-one talks to resolve such disputes, he said.

An agreement on boundaries would determine access to oil reserves in the South China Sea that may total as much as 213 billion barrels, according to Chinese studies cited in 2008 by the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The Philippines and Vietnam, which have awarded exploration contracts to Exxon Mobil Corp., Talisman Energy Inc. and Forum Energy Plc, reject China’s map of the sea as a basis for joint development.

China Claims

The Philippines proposed in May setting boundaries according to the United Nations Law of the Sea, a move that would cost China rights to a swath of waters now included in its nine-dash map that extends hundreds of miles. The nine-dash line is “the core of the problem,” Philippines Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario said Nov. 15.

China has used patrol boats to disrupt survey activities in disputed waters, chasing away a ship working for U.K.-based Forum Energy Plc off the Philippines in March and cutting cables of a ship doing work for Vietnam in May. Asean and China agreed in July on non-binding guidelines for operating in the seas designed as the first step toward a binding code of conduct.

The South China Sea contains two sets of contested island groups, the Spratlys and Paracels. China fully controls the Paracels after ousting fellow claimant Vietnam from the 30 islets and reefs in a 1974 battle that killed 71 soldiers.

The Philippines, Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Taiwan have troops further to the south on the Spratlys. Brunei, another Asean member, also has a claim on the islands.

U.S.-India Bonds

In his meeting with Singh, Obama said the U.S. and India, the world’s two largest democracies, will continue to “strengthen bonds” on commercial, strategic and security issues. Singh thanked Obama for his interest in India’s economic and social “transformation,” and said there are “no irritants whatsoever” their two countries.

India is considering opening its $396 billion retail market to foreign companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Wal-Mart, Carrefour SA, which operate wholesale stores in the country, and Tesco Plc are among companies vying for a share of a market that Business Monitor International estimates will double to $785 billion by 2015. Obama visited India last year.

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