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U.S., China tussle over sea claims at meeting of regional foreign ministers

| Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — The Obama administration insists it is not having a contest with China for influence and leadership in Southeast Asia, but both sides were clearly keeping score at a weekend meeting of regional foreign ministers here.

China rebuffed a U.S.-backed proposal for a freeze on “provocative acts” in disputed waters of the South China Sea, but U.S. officials claimed victory in nudging Southeast Asian nations to take a firmer public stand against assertive Chinese behavior.

The United States claims China has taken such provocative acts in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and others in the South China Sea and in a simmering dispute with Japan in the East China Sea. The disputes have put the region on edge and put the United States on the spot to respond on behalf of allies and partners.

China recently announced plans to build lighthouses on five disputed islands in the South China Sea. In Vietnam, there were deadly anti-Chinese riots in May after China installed an oil rig off islands claimed by the country. The Philippines have tried unsuccessfully to bring China before a U.N. tribunal over disputed Chinese maritime operations.

“There was an extensive discussion, on multiple occasions, about the South China Sea,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at the close of the gathering Sunday. “I expressed the concerns of many, which are shared, about the rise in tensions that have occurred.”

Kerry said diplomats with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations “all underscored the importance of negotiations on a binding code of conduct,” something China has put off indefinitely.

Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met on Saturday — Wang complained that Kerry was 30 minutes late — but spent much of the rest of the two days circling one another around the edges of the meeting of diplomats.

The United States was seeking a united front with China's Southeast Asian neighbors to put pressure on China to negotiate a “code of conduct” for the waters. China's goal was to head off any strong statements while continuing to assert its claims.

A joint statement of the ASEAN members “urged all parties concerned to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which would complicate the situation and undermine peace, stability and security in the South China Sea.”

The statement fell short of U.S. hopes for a stiff declaration that China must reverse course and that disputes must be settled by international arbitration, but U.S. officials claimed a victory.

“This language represents a significant setback for China's efforts to play for time and . . . change the subject,” a senior Obama administration official said.

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