US, China in face-off over sea dispute

President Barack Obama told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who indirectly warned Washington on Friday to stay out of the dispute, that the United States wanted to ensure the sea lanes were kept open and peaceful. Tensions flared earlier this year with often tense maritime stand-offs between claimants, including China, to a sea that carries some $5 trillion a year in world trade.

An Australian thinktank warned in June the tensions could spark a conflict that could draw in the United States and other powers.

The two leaders met on the resort island of Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, a gathering of 18 countries with diverse political and cultural backgrounds but which seeks to boost political and security cooperation.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims to parts of the South China Sea, while China claims large parts of the region, which might hold rich deposits of oil and gas. The Southeast Asian countries along with the United States and Japan are pressuring Beijing to try to seek some way forward on the knotty issue of sovereignty, prompting Wen on Friday to warn “outside forces” to stop interfering, a veiled reference to Washington and Tokyo.

The impasse is largely over how any talks should be conducted. China wants to hold bilateral talks with other countries that claim parts of the South China Sea as their territory, but the Southeast Asian claimants, the United States and Japan are pushing for a multilateral approach.

“It ought to be resolved through friendly consultations and discussions by countries directly involved. Outside forces should not, under any pretext, get involved,” Wen told a meeting with Southeast Asian leaders on Friday, several of whose countries claim sovereignty to parts of the South China Sea.

Wen’s comments were carried on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website (www.mfa.gov.cn). US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this week urged claimants to the South China Sea not to resort to intimidation to back their claims, itself an indirect reference to China.

Obama has been lower key as far as public comments are concerned. But he told the leaders of India, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia in bilateral meetings in Bali that maritime issues should be discussed at the summit.

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