RIYADH • United States Secretary of State John Kerry began a visit to Asia yesterday during which he planned to press China to impose more curbs on North Korea after its nuclear test, and to urge South-east Asia to show unity in response to China's claims in the South China Sea.
Mr Kerry started what will be a three-day stay in the region in Laos, the 2016 chair of the 10-member Asean grouping, after attending the Davos summit in Switzerland and stopping over in Saudi Arabia. He will head to Cambodia tonight and then on to Beijing for talks on Wednesday.
In Beijing, Mr Kerry is expected to stress the need for a united front in response to this month's North Korean nuclear test through additional United Nations sanctions, and for a tough response from China, North Korea's main ally, a senior State Department official said.
"It is very important to present a united front... but that united front has to be a firm one, not a flaccid one," the official told journalists travelling with Mr Kerry.
It is particularly important to "cut off avenues of proliferation and retard North Korea's ability to gain the wherewithal to advance its nuclear and its missile programmes", the official said, and that meant China doing more.
"North Korea is still engaged in illicit and proliferation activities," he said. "It has very few avenues for conducting business with the international community that don't in some fashion involve transiting China. Despite the determination and efforts of the Chinese government, clearly there is more that it can do."
In Beijing, Mr Kerry plans "in-depth" discussions on the South China Sea, a source of increasing tension between China and Asean countries and the US due to China's building of artificial islands suitable for use as military bases, the official said.
First though in Vientiane, Mr Kerry will seek to bolster Asean unity and the bloc's resolve to stand up to China in the lead-up to a summit US President Barack Obama has called with the bloc's leaders on Feb 15 and 16 in Sunnylands, California.
Laos has close political and economic ties with its giant neighbour China, worrying the Obama administration that Vientiane might behave like Cambodia did when it held the Asean chair in 2012 and was accused of obstructing consensus in the bloc over the South China Sea.
Mr Kerry will seek to set an encouraging tone in Laos by discussing increased US aid, including more funding for work to dispose of unexploded US ordnance left over from the Vietnam War, when Laos became one of the most heavily bombed countries in history as the US sought to destroy communist supply lines running through it.
The actual announcements are expected to come when Mr Obama becomes the first US president ever to visit the country when he attends a regional summit towards the end of the year.
In Cambodia, Mr Kerry will meet Mr Hun Sen, now Asia's longest- serving prime minister, and will draw attention to US concerns about human rights and treatment of government critics by meeting opposition members and civil activists, the State Department official said.