WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama pledged Tuesday to bring up maritime disputes boiling between China and its neighbors at the US-ASEAN and East Asia summits in Brunei in October.
Brunei has already said that it will pursue a binding code of conduct among competing claimants in the South China Sea during its ASEAN chairmanship this year. China insists disputes are a bilateral matter between individual nations.
“We will be discussing maritime issues,” Obama said after meeting Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in the Oval Office, referring to the two summits, which he is expected to attend.
“Obviously, there have been a lot of tensions in the region around maritime issues and His Majesty has shown great leadership in order to bring the countries together to make sure that everybody’s abiding by basic precepts of rule of law and international standards.”
Obama said the summits would also be a good venue to discuss commerce, economic and other diplomatic issues impacting a region to which he has “pivoted” US diplomatic and military resources.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and non-member Taiwan have claims to parts of the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important shipping lanes which is believed to be rich in fossil fuels.
Simmering tensions over the issue have risen in the past two years, with the Philippines and Vietnam accusing China of becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claims.
The anger erupted during Cambodia’s 2012 ASEAN chairmanship which was marked by sharp regional discord over the affair.
Efforts to secure a legally binding code of conduct involving ASEAN and China have floundered for years amid Beijing’s insistence on handling disputes bilaterally with individual countries, while ASEAN wants to speak as a group.
The president also noted in his remarks that the United States would take part later this year in the first ASEAN-US-China joint exercise, to test how Pacific military powers can work together on disaster relief.
Obama said the maneuvers in June would be able to show how the rival militaries can “help people in times of need and to try to help avoid conflict rather than start conflict.”
On a lighter note, Obama also expressed admiration for the Sultan’s piloting skills, after he flew his own jumbo jet into the United States on Monday.
“I think he’s probably the only head of state in the world who flies a 747 himself,” Obama said.
Obama became the first US president to attend the East Asia summit in Bali in 2011 and also took part in the 2012 meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.