Obama, Southeast Asian leaders want South China Sea disputes resolved peacefully, draft says

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — President Barack Obama and Southeast Asian leaders will call for the peaceful settlement of South China Sea territorial disputes and urge claimants not to resort to force, according to a draft communique.

Washington upped the ante in July, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a regional security forum in Vietnam that the peaceful resolution of the disputes over the Spratly and Paracel groups of islands was an American national interest.

The United States was concerned the conflicts could hamper access to one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes.

Beijing angrily reacted by saying Washington was interfering in an Asian regional issue.

Obama will meet leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Friday to discuss ways to bolster their alliance and discuss economic cooperation and security issues, including the South China Sea disputes.

Obama and the ASEAN leaders will issue a joint statement where Washington has proposed text to reaffirm the importance of freedom of navigation, regional stability, respect for international law and unimpeded commerce in the South China Sea, according to a draft of the statement seen Sunday by The Associated Press.

The statement will oppose the "use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims in the South China Sea."

All the leaders will reaffirm their backing of a 2002 ASEAN-China declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea, which calls on claimants not to take steps that could foment violence and spark new tension. They will encourage claimants to agree on a stronger code of conduct.

China claims all of the South China Sea, where Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines have also laid territorial claims. Aside from rich fishing areas, the region is believed to have huge oil and natural gas deposits. The contested islands straddle busy sea lanes that are a crucial conduit for oil and other resources fueling China's fast-expanding economy.

In a recent preparatory meeting in Washington ahead of the summit, Assistant State Secretary Kurt Campbell and National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Jeffrey Bader told ASEAN ambassadors that Clinton's statement in Hanoi was already earning dividends, with China "clearly moved back to a more collaborative approach," according to confidential report obtained by The AP.

The U.S. officials were quoted in the report as saying that in a recent meeting in China, both sides discussed how claimants were expected to behave in the disputed region. They assured Chinese officials that Clinton's remarks in Hanoi did not seek to single out China but was addressed to all claimant countries.

Clinton's statement in July came after Beijing told visiting Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in March the South China Sea was now considered one of China's "core interests," alongside Taiwan and Tibet.