US, Russia join Asian summit as regional spats simmer

30th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Saturday join 16 Asia-Pacific leaders at a summit in Vietnam dominated by China's territorial disputes.

The United States and Russia will be formally invited as members of the East Asia Summit at the group's annual gathering, in what analysts say is a blow to Chinese attempts to diminish US influence in the region.

Their entry into the EAS, which elevates its diplomatic heft, comes despite Chinese attempts to promote another grouping -- which does not include the US -- as the region's premier forum for regional cooperation.

US membership is seen as part of its strategic return to Southeast Asia to balance China's growing influence in the region, where Beijing's more aggressive stance on territorial disputes has unnerved its smaller neighbours.

Clinton, in a speech on Asia-Pacific relations made in Honolulu earlier this week, downplayed suggestions the US is duelling with China for influence.

"There are some in both countries who believe that China's interests and ours are fundamentally at odds. They apply a zero-sum calculation to our relationship. So whenever one of us succeeds, the other must fail," she said.

"But that is not our view."

Nevertheless, China has been irritated by Washington wading into the issue of its claim over the resource-rich South China Sea, where several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries are also claimants.

Clinton said in July that resolving disputes over the strategic area is "pivotal" to regional stability and offered to negotiate a settlement.

On the eve of the Hanoi summit, China hit out at Clinton's remarks that other disputed islands in the East China Sea, the flashpoint for a serious feud with Japan, fall within the scope of the US-Japan security alliance.

"The Chinese government and people will never accept any word or deed that includes the Diaoyu islands within the scope of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security," foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said.

The disputed islands -- called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan -- have been at the centre of a deepening row between Beijing and Tokyo which erupted again in Hanoi, evaporating hopes for talks between their leaders.

Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara met his Chinese counterpart Friday and said they had agreed to improve ties. Japan's delegation announced direct talks between the leaders, but then retracted the statement.

China's assistant foreign affairs minister Hu Zhengyue then issued a statement using extremely strong terms to condemn Japan.

"Japanese diplomatic authorities have partnered with other nations and stepped up the heat on the Diaoyu island issue," he said.

He said Japanese comments had "violated China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

"The Japanese moves, which is clear for everyone to see, have ruined the needed atmosphere for a meeting between the two leaders. Japan should take full responsibility for the result."

Japanese premier Naoto Kan's spokesman, Noriyuki Shikata, said there was no reason for "heightened tensions... between the two countries" and that Japan stood ready to "engage in dialogue."

The neighbours have been feuding since the September 8 arrest of a Chinese trawler captain after a collision with Japanese coastguard vessels near the disputed East China Sea island chain.

The United States called on China and ally Japan to ease tensions.

"We want China and Japan to sit down, to have dialogue and work through the issues," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters in Washington.

"We would hope that both countries will take affirmative steps to de-escalate tensions around this issue and that will create the conditions for a meaningful dialogue."

The East Asia Summit is a forum for dialogue on strategic, political and economic issues involving the 10-member Southeast Asian bloc as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

© 2010 AFP

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