Asean to bring in US as counterbalance to China

Asean to bring in US as counterbalance to China

Hanoi: Southeast Asian nations are welcoming the United States into their club, a move seen as bringing a counterweight to China following a series of aggressive maritime moves by Beijing.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), will formally invite the US and Russia to join their annual East Asian Summit on Saturday in the Vietnamese capital.

During a stop in Hawaii en route to Hanoi, US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed that the US would remain a major power in the Asia-Pacific region and called on China to expand cooperation with Washington.

“It is not in anyone’s interest for the United States and China to see each other as adversaries," she said.

Southeast Asian nations have become increasingly rattled in recent months, accusing China of being a bully following a series of territorial spats on the high seas, including run-ins with Vietnam and a nasty row with Japan.

China has strongly pushed to keep territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea out of talks held by Asean, preferring instead to deal with clashes one on one. But the smaller countries have refused to back down.

“Asean should have one voice before we venture (into) talking to other claimants," Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said, adding that he and other Southeast Asian leaders aired concerns during a dinner Thursday centered around maintaining peace and keeping busy shipping lanes open in the South China Sea.

At another meeting in Hanoi this summer, Clinton enraged China by announcing that the US has a national interest in seeing territorial disputes in the South China Sea resolved, ensuring shipping lanes remain open and that navigation within international waters be free for everyone.

China has laid claim to strategically placed and potentially oil-rich islands in the South China Sea, but parts of the territory are also claimed by several Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam.

The invitation to the US to join what had been an Asian-only event comes at an anxious time for the region. The East Asian grouping comprises the Southeast Asian countries along with six others including India, Australia, and Japan. With many nations unnerved by China’s accruing power and its more assertive behavior, they are turning to the US to moderate, but not squeeze out, China.

“If the US and China maintain stable relations, then everyone wins. But if the two have tensions, then everyone loses. It’s the balance of power that creates the peace," said Huang Jing, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore.

Meanwhile, China and Japan met Friday in an attempt to repair relations soured by a maritime territorial dispute, with Japan also asking for the lifting of a block on exports of rare earth metals crucial to its high-tech manufacturing.

Japanese companies have said those exports were frozen after the dispute flared up in September, though the Beijing government denied that it has blocked the exports.

China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi and his Japanese counterpart Seiji Maehara went into private talks on the sidelines of a regional Asian summit, hoping to lay the foundation for a meeting between Premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

“The discussion took place in a good atmosphere. It was held calmly while both sides said what we should say. I believe it is likely that the leaders of China and Japan will hold a meeting here in Hanoi," Maehara told reporters after the hour-plus talks.

The two countries have sought to repair ties brought to a new low after a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese patrol boats last month near disputed islands in the East China Sea. Tensions have remained high, despite Japan’s release of the boat captain, with anti-Japanese protests flaring up in cities across China.

Japan also asked China to reopen talks on the joint development of gas fields in the East China Sea, Maehara said. Beijing suspended the talks during the spat.

A day earlier, Maehara met with Clinton in Hawaii, where she said the restrictions on rare earth metals served as a “wake-up call" for the global high-tech industry to diversify its suppliers. China currently produces 97% of the world’s rare earth metals, used in everything from laptops to cell phones.

China said Thursday it will not use the metals as a “bargaining tool."

Tokyo recently said it planned to mine rare earths in Vietnam as a way to reduce its dependence on China.

Maehara also said that Japan “repeated its position firmly" regarding the territorial issue over the East China Sea islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Both countries claim the islands.

Japan on Tuesday said it was considering increasing the size of its navy submarine fleet amid growing concerns that China’s maritime muscle is becoming too strong and could tip the balance of power in the Pacific, where the United States also maintains a strong presence.