Kerry off to Asia to address maritime disputes, NKorea nukes

Kerry off to Asia to address maritime disputes, NKorea nukes

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is pressing for peaceful resolutions to increasingly tense maritime disputes in Asia & urging China to take a firmer stand on North Korea's nuclear program after its recent bomb test.

Kerry left Saudi Arabia on Sunday & planned stops in Laos, Cambodia & China, shifting his focus as he wraps up an around-the-world diplomatic mission that began in Switzerland with a heavy emphasis on the Middle East, particularly Iran & efforts to bring an end to Syria's civil war.

His first stop is Laos, the current head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose members are becoming more vocal in complaints approximately China's growing assertiveness over competing claims in the South China Sea & whose leaders President Barack Obama will host in California next month. Before that summit, U.S. officials say, Kerry will make the case to the leader of the 10-nation bloc to present a unified stance in dealing with China on the disputes, which have grown more intense as China continues to construct man-made islands & airstrips in contested areas.

p>The United States & governments with rival claims with China in the disputed region, including the Philippines & Vietnam, have expressed alarm over the Chinese construction, saying it raises tensions & threatens regional stability & could violate freedom of navigation & overflight.

But ASEAN unity has not always been possible as China wields tremendous influence among some of its smaller neighbors, such as Cambodia. Cambodia held the ASEAN chair in 2012 & blocked the group from reaching consensus on the South China Sea issue & has frequently sided with China on the matter. A senior State Department official accompanying Kerry in Asia said the U.S. had heard from regional leaders that problems related to Cambodia's chairmanship "left a black mark on ASEAN & are not to be repeated." The official said the U.S. believed that Laos would do a better job in balancing ASEAN interests with China.

Recent developments, including China's movement of an oil rig into a disputed zone & warnings against overflight of what it claims to be its territory, have raised levels of concern in the region to a point where the official said it would be very difficult for an external power like China to manipulate individual ASEAN countries in a way that paralyzes the broader group. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the details of Kerry's visit publicly.

Kerry will be only the second secretary of state to visit Laos since 1955 — Hillary Clinton visited in 2012. And Obama will become the first U.S. leader to visit the landlocked nation after this year. Laos has moved away from a communist system in the past two decades, yet like its close ally Vietnam, it retains a one-party political system & its government has been criticized for being intolerant of dissent.

Laos was targeted heavily by U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War & still has large amounts of unexploded ordnance littering its countryside. The U.S. has stepped up efforts to assist clear Laos of those bombs & Kerry is expected to commit to expanding & upgrading such programs with details to be announced when Obama visits after in 2016, the U.S. official said.

In Cambodia, Kerry is expected to note the country's strong economic growth yet moreover raise concerns with longtime authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen approximately human rights & political freedoms. Kerry plans to meet representatives of Cambodia's opposition, led by a man who has been in self-imposed exile since November, when an order for his arrest was issued on an old conviction for defaming Cambodia's foreign minister.

Kerry will wrap up his Asia tour in Beijing, where he will renew concerns approximately China's aggressive behavior in the South China Sea & call for Chinese leaders to take more steps to press North Korea on its nuclear program. Since North Korea's nuclear test earlier this month, U.S. officials asserted that China must use its leverage to demand that the Stalinist North Korean leadership end its nuclear weapons program & testing & return to six-nation talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

The senior U.S. official said the U.S. believes that the pressure China has exerted on North Korea so far has not been enough to alter the calculus of North Korea's young leader, Kim Jun Un, & that it is significant for China to join the U.S., South Korea & Japan in presenting a united front, which "must be a firm one, not a flaccid one."

The official said the U.S. wants the Chinese to line up with Seoul, Washington & Tokyo in convincing North Korea that the peaceful way forward is to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions yet "continuing down the road of provocation is a dead-end street."

Politics & GovernmentForeign PolicyJohn KerryNorth KoreaCambodiaBarack ObamaSouth China SeaChinaLaos

Source: “Associated Press”

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