BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, BRUNEI — Secretary of State John F. Kerry apologized Wednesday for President Obama’s absence at a gathering that has become a testing ground for U.S. outreach to Southeast Asian nations rattled by China’s growing assertiveness.
Obama was supposed to lead a special U.S. session with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, many of whose members are nervous about China’s intentions but also reluctant to appear to side against a powerful neighbor and trading partner.
“I bring you both President Obama’s sincerest greetings and his apologies for not being able to be here,” Kerry said at the beginning of a meeting with the ASEAN leaders. “You all understand why.”
Later in the day, Kerry stood in for Obama at a meeting with China’s No. 2 leader, who appeared to make an oblique reference to territorial disputes with several nations in the South China Sea and to the contest with the United States for influence.
“I’m sure that we’re all committed to living with each other in harmony and discussing jointly those issues of common interest,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told Kerry at the start of the meeting Obama had planned to hold on the sidelines of a pair of Asian leaders’ gatherings here.
While Obama remains in Washington, dealing with the budget impasse and government shutdown, the Asian diplomatic gatherings highlighted the complex aims of the administration’s policy for the region, known variously as a strategic “pivot” or “rebalance.”
On one hand, the United States is not hiding its attempt to link Asian partners under the U.S. security umbrella, which China considers a challenge. On the other, Obama has been focusing on improving relations with China, even hosting President Xi Jinping on a visit to California in June.
“Our presidents set out on a new course,” Kerry told Li.
Kerry has also had several recent meetings with China’s foreign minister and saw Xi twice this week for short talks outside the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which met in Indonesia.
“I think we’ve really been able to find ways to define this relationship a little bit more and find ways to cooperate on some of the critical issues between us,” Kerry said Wednesday. “I know President Obama very much wanted to be here to be able to continue that dialogue.”
The annual U.S.-ASEAN session has become something of a showcase for the South China Sea disputes and the ongoing division over a proposed “code of conduct” for ASEAN nations and China that would govern activity in the South China Sea.
“The United States has been very happy to see ASEAN’s efforts to push forward on the negotiations toward a code of conduct that would support peaceful resolutions of disputes, protect the right of all nations to pursue economic growth and uphold international law throughout the region,” Kerry said during the session.
Kerry also tried to reassure the members that Obama remains committed to U.S. relationships in Asia. The United States has upgraded its economic relationships with and given rhetorical support for Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam, that have pushed back against China. And the administration has pledged military help for others, such as Japan in East Asia and the Philippines in Southeast Asia, that have taken the toughest line.
“The partnership that we share with ASEAN remains a top priority for the Obama administration,” Kerry told the group’s leaders, including “strengthening those ties on security issues, economic issues and more.”
His audience included leaders of Burma, which has reversed decades of Chinese alliance to tip toward the United States, and Cambodia, which is a firm Chinese partner and has sometimes appeared to do its bidding at ASEAN.
China is not a member, but is a participant in the East Asia Summit, also taking place in Brunei.
Obama’s “rebalance is a commitment, it is there to stay and will continue into the future,” Kerry promised during the session.
Xi did not come to Brunei, but Li was expected to use the two days of meetings to emphasize China’s ties to its Southeast Asian neighbors and to capitalize on Obama’s absence.
China announced ahead of time that Li would not meet with either Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or Philippine President Benigno Aquino in Brunei. Li is visiting Thailand and Vietnam after the meeting.