The United States irked China last year by asserting that Washington had a national security interest in the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China has competing claims with several nations and territories in those resource-rich waters but rejects outside interference, maintaining the disputes should be handled bilaterally.
The top U.S. diplomat for east Asia, Kurt Campbell, played down differences with China on Tuesday and said the U.S. this year will seek to deepen cooperation, although he offered no specifics.
"Obviously there's a degree of competition in any relationship, and there is that between the United States and China, but we want to make sure that we work together in an appropriate manner in Southeast Asia," he said in a speech on U.S. policy toward the region at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Campbell also said a review is under way of the U.S. military posture in the region which he said was aimed at sending a message that the U.S. would maintain a "secure, enduring American presence."
The Obama administration has deepened U.S. ties in Southeast Asia, a strategy seen as countering China's rapid economic rise and a military buildup that threatens U.S. predominance in the west Pacific. At the same time, Washington has tried to smooth over often-rocky relations with Beijing, notwithstanding their unresolved differences on human rights and the value of China's currency.
Campbell said the U.S. wanted to elevate its bilateral relationship with Indonesia, the largest nation and current chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. He supported Jakarta's "activist foreign policy" in fostering ASEAN-China dialogue and in mediating this month in a bloody border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.
Campbell urged reform in ASEAN member Myanmar, also known as Burma, where a shift in U.S. policy from isolation toward engaging an internationally sanctioned government 18 months ago has elicited little action on crucial U.S. demands.
Washington wants to see political prisoner releases, dialogue between the powerful military and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and cooperation from the Myanmar government on countering proliferation of weaponry by North Korea.
"We want to see more from our friends in Naypyidaw," Campbell said, referring to Myanmar's administrative capital. "It's not enough to say 'be patient with us.' There's been an enormous amount of time and substantial patience, first and foremost in ASEAN for years, hoping and waiting for progress which has not come to pass."