President Obama's decision to skip two Asia-Pacific summits this week to deal with the U.S. government shutdown and threatened debt default allowed Chinese leaders to strut the world stage as regional superpower envoys and have their way on critical issues.
Maritime disputes in the East and South China seas have poisoned relations among half a dozen members of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which met on the Indonesian island of Bali this week, then joined the U.S., Russia and other regional powers in Brunei for the annual East Asia Summit.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the Brunei gathering Thursday that "positive, steady progress" was being made on a legally binding code of conduct to manage disputes in the South China Sea, where Beijing claims sovereignty over its islands, rich fisheries and energy resources.
Li also said that freedom of navigation through the disputed seas "has never been an issue and will never be one."
But in a pointed warning to the United States, Li said countries not directly involved in the territorial dispute should stay out of it.
The comments were seen by some media analysts as China evading serious discussion or compromise over parts of the strategic maritime corridors through which pass more than $1.2 trillion in goods annually between the United States and its Far East trading partners.
Obama's absence, the Australian Broadcasting Co. commented, probably "emboldened China's representatives" to stick to their policy of aggressively asserting ownership of the South China Sea assets, as well as some East China Sea islands claimed by Japan.
The official New China News Agency said Li also raised Beijing's "concern about Washington's debt ceiling problem" in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who stood in for Obama at the summits.
China is the largest foreign U.S. government creditor, holding about $1.28 trillion in Treasury bonds.
Kerry reportedly sought to reassure Li that the talk in Congress and financial circles of a possible default on U.S. debts was a fleeting political dispute, calling it "a moment in Washington politics" that will be resolved before it becomes a problem, news agencies, including Voice of America, reported.
Kerry did succeed in signing a deal with Vietnam to sell nuclear fuel and technology to the country, in exchange for Vietnam's renunciation of uranium or plutonium processing that could make fuel for nuclear weapons.
The summits were seen as important steps on Myanmar's return to the democratic fold after decades of military dictatorship. President Thein Sein accepted the ceremonial gavel of ASEAN chairmanship for 2014, a role expected to keep the international spotlight and pressure on Myanmar, also known as Burma, to build on reforms and improve its human rights record.
But many accounts of the weeklong diplomacy placed significant import on Obama's absence and the possible setback for his administration's pledge to "pivot" diplomatic and security resources from Europe and the Middle East to Asia.
"It was hard not to see the week as an episode in a long-running drama of relative American decline in the Asia-Pacific region as China rises," the Economist said. The London-based news weekly described Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his summit appearances and parallel visits to Malaysia and Indonesia, as "oozing personal authority and commercial clout at every stop."
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