NAYPYIDAW, Burma — The Obama administration insists it isn’t having a contest with China for influence and leadership in Southeast Asia, but both sides were clearly keeping score at a weekend meeting of regional foreign ministers here.
China rebuffed a U.S.-backed proposal for a freeze on “provocative acts” in disputed waters of the South China Sea, but U.S. officials still claimed victory in nudging Southeast Asian nations to take a firmer public stand against assertive Chinese behavior.
The United States says China has carried out such provocative acts in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and others in the South China Sea and in a simmering dispute with Japan in the East China Sea. The disputes have put the region on edge and put the United States on the spot to respond on behalf of allies and partners.
China recently announced plans to build lighthouses on five disputed islands in the South China Sea. In Vietnam, there were deadly anti-Chinese riots in May after China installed an oil rig off islands claimed by the country. The Philippines has tried unsuccessfully to bring China before a U.N. tribunal over disputed Chinese maritime operations.
Neither the United States nor China belongs to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but their shadows loomed large over the gathering in Burma’s inland capital.
“There was an extensive discussion, on multiple occasions, about the South China Sea,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said at the close of the gathering Sunday. “I expressed the concerns of many, which are shared, about the rise in tensions that have occurred.”
Kerry said ASEAN diplomats “all underscored the importance of negotiations on a binding code of conduct,” something China has put off indefinitely. “I stressed the importance of everybody clarifying claims under international law and proceeding under the legal process,” Kerry told reporters. “Our hope is that the claimants ultimately can agree among themselves and proceed forward.”
Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Saturday — Wang complained that Kerry was 30 minutes late — but spent much of the rest of the two days circling one another around the edges of the meeting of diplomats.
“It’s no understatement that what happens here matters not just to this region and to the U.S., but it matters to everybody in the world,” Kerry said in introductory remarks to the forum. “That’s why we’re encouraging claimant states to consider voluntarily agreeing to refrain from taking certain actions.”
The United States was seeking a united front with China’s Southeast Asian neighbors to put pressure on China to negotiate a “code of conduct” for the waters. The Philippines, with strong U.S. backing, had put forward the “freeze” idea. China’s goal was to head off any strong statements while continuing to assert its claims.
Addressing reporters Saturday, Wang rejected Kerry’s call for adjudication based on international law and called the proposal premature.
“Any proposal to come up with an alternative would only disrupt discussion of the code of conduct,” Wang said.
He turned the tables, saying other nations are provoking China.
As a “responsible great power, China is ready to maintain restraint,” Wang said. “But for unreasonable provocative activities, China is bound to make a clear and firm reaction.”
A joint statement of the ASEAN members “urged all parties concerned to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which would complicate the situation and undermine peace, stability and security in the South China Sea.”
That was a reference to the territorial and maritime disputes in waters that China claims are almost entirely under its aegis, but the ASEAN statement did not refer to China by name. It urged that disputes be settled “through peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force,” and in accordance with the U.N. Law of the Sea.
The statement fell short of U.S. hopes for a stiff declaration that China must reverse course and that disputes must be settled by international arbitration, but U.S. officials claimed a victory.
“This language represents a significant setback for China’s efforts to play for time and . . . change the subject,” a senior Obama administration official said. “It’s a criticism of Chinese behavior, and it puts an enormous amount of pressure on the Chinese and signals to them that its relations with countries in the region are deteriorating.”
China has a close relationship with a few of the 10 ASEAN states, while others maintain wary partnerships with their much larger and more powerful neighbor. The Philippines has gone furthest in challenging China, with American encouragement, and has suffered Chinese trade reprisals as a consequence.
The meeting setting in Burma is itself symbolic of the rivalry for influence. The sterile and largely empty streets of Naypyidaw are lined with buildings built by China, long Burma’s main benefactor until the former military junta in Burma distanced itself from China four years ago. Burma, also known as Myanmar, now courts U.S. business and has adopted reform measures in exchange for a reduction in most U.S. economic sanctions.
U.S. officials are sensitive to the perception of a superpower struggle and sought to play it down Sunday. Two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe Kerry’s closed-door meetings denied that the two powers are trying to line up partisans at ASEAN.
“This is not a showdown,” a senior State Department official said Sunday. “This is a serious discussion of the pressing issues.”
China’s Wang said tensions are being overstated.
“Someone has been exaggerating or even playing up the so-called tension in the South China Sea,” Wang said. “We do not agree with such a practice, and we call for vigilance in the motives behind them.”