WASHINGTON – A summit with Southeast Asian leaders that President Barack Obama will host this month is “not anti-China,” a State Department official said Tuesday.
The meeting will bring leaders from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the California resort of Sunnylands on Feb. 15 and 16.
“This summit is not about China. It’s about the U.S. and ASEAN,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel said in an interview with the AP, Reuters and AFP news agencies. “This is not about China, this is not anti-China.”
The U.S. administration has focused on bolstering ASEAN as a counterpoint to Chinese regional power.
“This is the culmination of a seven-plus-year investment the United States has made first and foremost in the Asia pacific region, but also in ASEAN in particular,” Russel said. “I think it demonstrates that the rebalance has reached cruising altitude,” he added, referring to the Obama administration’s focus on its “pivot” toward Asia since 2009.
Several ASEAN states are embroiled in an increasingly bitter spat with China over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
The U.S. says it takes no position on ownership of the various reefs and islets under dispute, but insists freedom of navigation in the vital shipping lane must be maintained.
“This set of challenges in Southeast Asia, particularly the disputes over land features and maritime entitlement in South China Sea, isn’t a zero-sum game. This is not a proxy war between China and the United States,” Russel said. “This is a direct challenge to the question of whether the countries in the region and the claimants in the South China Sea, and particularly China . . . would be guided by the universal principles and the rule of law.”
He insisted that Asia is “not, certainly, a battleground for big powers’ competition.”