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US Seeks Cooperation With China as it Boosts Engagement in Southeast Asia

Cambodian Ambassador Hem Heng shakes hand with US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, (file photo).
Cambodian Ambassador Hem Heng shakes hand with US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, (file photo).

A top State Department official says that as the United States works to deepen its engagement in Southeast Asia, working closely together with China is a key part of that effort.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell says that one of the the most important things that the United States is seeking to do this year, both at the ASEAN regional forum and the East Asia Summit, is show the United States deep commitment to working with China.

"We want to dispel any concerns in Southeast Asia that we see this as a venue for larger competition of the kind that would be destabilizing and unhelpful to Southeast Asian friends. 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.

U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia was the focus of a speech Campbell gave Tuesday at the Washington D.C.-based research group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As the United States works to find common ground with China, the world's second largest economy and a rising Asia-Pacific military power, Campbell says Washington will be seeking to highlight areas of common pursuit with Beijing and find specific projects the two countries can work with each other in the region.

Analysts say the United States is stepping up its engagement in the region to counter China's growing economic and political clout. China was upset last year, when the United States voiced its interest in helping promote the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.

China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan all have claims on parts or all of the South China Sea, where oil and natural reserves are believed to be in abundance. China argues that the issue should be handled bi-laterally.

When asked about a recent incident between a Vietnamese oil survey vessel and a Chinese naval vessel, Campbell did not make any direct remarks, but stressed the importance of dialogue in resolving such disputes.

"Our general policy remains the same, we discourage a resort to violence in these circumstances or threats and we want to see a process of dialogue emerge. We communicate intensively and privately with a variety of states associated with the South China Sea and we want to continue that as we go forward," Campbell said.

Vietnam says its ship was operating well within the country's 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone when it was approached by three Chinese naval vessels. It says one of the Chinese ships cut exploration cables and forced the Vietnamese vessel out of the area under threat of violence.

Campbell says that since stepping into office over two years ago, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have worked to intensify U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia.

In 2009, President Obama was the first U.S. president to meet with all 10 member-nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN.

Secretary Clinton has traveled to Asia seven times, he says, and that many of those trips have been to Southeast Asia. Clinton has hoped to visit all of the nations in Southeast Asia during her time in office.

"I think what you have seen over the course of the last two and a half years is the beginning of that process. I say beginning because in order to be successful, particularly in South East Asia, it is going to be important to continue this (effort)," she said.

One important move that to continue that effort for the United States is joining the East Asia Summit this November in Bali, Indonesia for the first time. Campbell says both President Obama and Secretary Clinton feel the way the United States joins the East Asia Summit is crucial.

"It is extraordinarily important for the United States to be successful. That we come in, we listen, we join the culture that is already established, and that we recognize our role as the new comer."

He says that the United States will come to the East Asia Summit prepared to interact with members on the existing agenda, as well as find a few areas where Washington can as he put it make some "modest contributions."

One area where the U.S. could make a contribution is with disaster assistance, he says.

At several points during the speech, Campbell highlighted the important role ASEAN is playing and can play in the region.

"It has become a very serious institution. It has been engaged on some of the most difficult and challenging issues confronting Asia over the course of the last many years, proliferation, challenges associated with Burma, questions related to what is the best way to promote dialogue in areas surrounding maritime security and the like," he said.

One area, however, where more could be done, he says, is how forums like ASEAN address problems in Northeast Asia and the need for more involvement and engagement on such issues.

Campbell says the United States overall goal in the region is to secure a strong enduring presence of commitment to the region, not just to North Asia, but increasingly to Southeast Asia as well.

Campbell adds that some details of that commitment will be outlined when Defense Secretary Robert Gates attends the regional defense meeting, the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore later this week.