Indonesia Urges China Sea Talks Before Obama Summit

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa rejected China’s stance that the U.S. stay out of territorial disputes in the South China Sea ahead of a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders with President Barack Obama.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is aware of China’s position “but at the same time the issues on the South China Sea need resolution,” Natalegawa said in an interview today with Bloomberg Television. “Indonesia, through Asean, is keen to ensure we have conditions conducive for negotiations to take place” so disagreements “can be resolved through peaceful means.”

China yesterday signaled for the U.S. to stay out of the spat over territorial waters, portions of which are claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

The U.S. has asserted a role in the sea vital to world trade to push back against Chinese assertiveness in the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the matter “a leading diplomatic priority” at an Asean meeting in Hanoi two months ago. That drew a reaction from China, which prefers to negotiate with claimants on a one-to-one basis.

The dispute comes as China and Japan are locked in a diplomatic row centering on conflicting territorial claims in the same waters. That conflict “reminds all of us that we cannot take for granted the relatively benign atmosphere we’ve had for many decades now in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Natalegawa, who is in New York to attend United Nations meetings.

Talks Stalled

Talks between Asean and China on a code of conduct in the sea have stalled since they agreed in 2002 to resolve disagreements peacefully. In a July filing to the UN, Indonesia said China’s claim to the entire sea “clearly lacks international legal basis.”

Obama has sought to boost security and trade ties with Asean, the fourth-biggest export market for the U.S. His meeting with Asean leaders in Singapore last year was the first-ever a U.S. president has held with the bloc.

This week’s meeting “is a good symbol that the group is a priority for the Obama administration,” said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “There are, however, questions about the substance of the summit, especially given the domestic priorities for the U.S. President.”

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will not attend Asean’s meeting with Obama. The U.S. president has postponed a planned trip to his childhood home three times this year, most recently in June because of the Gulf oil spill.

Vision, Partnership

“The fact that certain visits have yet to take place I don’t think is impairing our vision of partnership in the future,” Natalegawa said. “I’m very optimistic that we’re heading into even deeper and wider relations.”

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, and its 231 million people make up about 40 percent of Asean’s population. In July, the U.S. resumed ties with Indonesia’s special forces that were cut 12 years ago because of human rights concerns.

(Adds analyst comment in eighth paragraph.)
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