U.S. President Barack Obama's absence at the summit of the Association of Southeast Nations in Brunei means the president is unable to accomplish something he promised earlier this year - to push leaders for a strong code of conduct between China and ASEAN for the disputed South China Sea to minimize the chances of a conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry is tasked with filling in for the president.
In a summit with ASEAN leaders, Kerry extended an apology from President Obama for his absence.
The president's decision not to attend the APEC and ASEAN gatherings has raised questions in Asia about America's commitment to the region.
Kerry told ASEAN's leaders Wednesday he knows they understand the partial shutdown of the U.S. government meant the president could not attend.
“But I assure that these events in Washington are a moment in politics and not more than that,” Kerry stressed.
Many meetings scheduled
Senior U.S. officials traveling with the secretary of state are emphasizing that Kerry is meeting with every head of government scheduled to sit down with Obama. And there is even one additional meeting with Kerry here at ASEAN - Burma's President Thein Sein.
The Obama administration has been lending support to ASEAN members who want the regional body to draft a strong maritime code of conduct to lessen chances of a conflict in the South China Sea.
A senior State Department official told reporters en route to Brunei they could expect related conversations between the United States and ASEAN to continue at a higher level, emphasizing America's role “as an advocate for the rule of law, peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation, and the principle of unimpeded lawful commerce.”
ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh was asked by reporters about progress. In reply, he referred to recent discussions in China between ASEAN and Chinese officials.
"The consultations will continue," he said. "And we hope that with the efforts on both sides, realizing that peace and stability in the region is necessary and is important, not only for ASEAN but for all the countries in the region and that includes China, we will achieve tangible progress.”
China's premier, Li Keqiang, noted “a peaceful South China Sea is a blessing for all.” He also indicated Beijing's preference to settle the maritime disputes on a bilateral basis.
China claims sovereignty over most of the sea but four ASEAN members: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have competing claims to some of the waters.