Obama's absence China's chance

BEIJING - As US President Barrack Obama cancelled a planned trip to Southeast Asia on Friday, China announced visits by Premier Li Keqiang to Thailand, Vietnam and three summits of regional leaders in Brunei.

  • Published: 4/10/2013 at 07:20 PM
  • Newspaper section: breakingnews

Li's trip complements President Xi Jinping's ongoing visits to Indonesia, Malaysia and an Asia-Pacific leaders' summit in Bali, where Xi replaces Obama as the highest-profile guest.

Li's itinerary was fixed before Obama cancelled his trip, but the flurry of activity by China's top two leaders can only bolster its standing in the region that Obama made the target of his diplomatic "pivot".

As Xi and Li promote the ruling Communist Party's vision of China's "peaceful rise" and extol the benefits of its economic power for the rest of Asia, they will  mplicitly court their smaller neighbours away from US influence.

President Xi Jinping (right) and Premier Li Keqiang arrive for a dinner marking the 64th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on Sept 30. (AP Photo)

When Li attends meetings with Asean leaders next week, he is likely to focus on China's efforts to expand regional free trade.

On the diplomatic front, some Southeast Asian leaders are expected to raise the long-awaited China-Axsean code of conduct for the South China Sea.

China's increasingly assertive claim to most of the sea puts it at odds with several Asean nations over disputed islands, most notably Vietnam and the Philippines.

While the 10 Asean members have reached consensus on a code of conduct, China is in no hurry to adopt a binding code to supersede the current "declaration of conduct".

In interviews with Malaysian and Indonesian media, and a speech to Indonesian politicians, Xi failed to mention the code even when he was asked directly about China's disputes in the South China Sea.

Xi, who will speak on China's economic reforms at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit this weekend, said only that China wanted to resolve the disputes "through friendly negotiations and dialogue".

"Accepting the code means China has to accept the current situation in the South China Sea, which is unsatisfactory to China," said Cheng Xiaohe, an international relations expert at People's University in Beijing.

China still favours bilateral talks with rival claimants, Cheng told dpa.

"The Philippines and Vietnam are both small nations with weak power compared with China," he said, "So they want to gather together through Asean to negotiate with China as a group."

China also wants a principle of non-interference written into any code of conduct. "Of course it mainly means no US involvement, but also includes Japan, India and Australia," Cheng said.

"The worst situation [for China] is letting all interested parties get involved and gather in a group that is against China."

Under Obama, Washington has said Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand will continue to be the five key US allies in the Asia-Pacific.

China was especially angered by recent US support for claims to disputed islands by Japan and the Philippines.
A pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, Wen Wei Po, published a commentary in July listing "six wars China must fight in the next 50 years".

The hawkish article is not known to represent the views of any of China's top party or military leaders. But it suggested war could break out in the South China Sea in 10 to 15 years, following the first war over Taiwan, the island that the Communist Party sees as a breakaway province of China.

In a speech on China-US relations at the Brookings Institute in Washington on Sept 20, Foreign Minister Wang Yi mentioned China's desire for "ultimate reunification" with Taiwan.

"For many years, the Taiwan question has been a liability in China-US relations that undermines mutual trust and disrupts cooperation," Wang said.

Washington should "respect China's efforts to oppose separation and achieve peaceful reunification," he said.
He said Chinese leaders wanted to cooperate with the United States, but the two sides must "respect and accommodate each other's interests and concerns in the Asia-Pacific".

"We have never thought about pushing the United States out of the region," Wang said. "Rather, we hope the United States will play a positive role in safeguarding peace, stability and development in the Asia-Pacific.

"The Asia-Pacific has been the home and root of the Chinese nation for thousands of years."

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Writer: By Bill Smith, dpa

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