Obama to raise maritime issues at Asia summits

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Barack Obama pledged on Tuesday to bring up maritime disputes boiling between China and its neighbors at the US-ASEAN and East Asia summits in Brunei in October.

Brunei has already said that it will pursue a binding code of conduct among competing claimants in the South China Sea during its ASEAN chairmanship this year. China insists disputes are a bilateral matter between individual nations.

"We will be discussing maritime issues," Obama said after meeting Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in the Oval Office, referring to the two summits, which he is expected to attend.

"Obviously there have been a lot of tensions in the region around maritime issues and His Majesty has shown great leadership in order to bring the countries together to make sure that everybody's abiding by basic precepts of rule of law and international standards."

Obama said the summits would also be a good venue to discuss commerce, economic and other diplomatic issues impacting a region to which he has "pivoted" US diplomatic and military resources.

ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and non-member Taiwan have claims to parts of the South China Sea, one of the world's most important shipping lanes which is believed to be rich in fossil fuels.

Simmering tensions over the issue have risen in the past two years, with the Philippines and Vietnam accusing China of becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claims.

The anger boiled over during Cambodia's 2012 ASEAN chairmanship which was marked by sharp regional discord over the affair.

Efforts to secure a legally binding code of conduct involving ASEAN and China have floundered for years amid Beijing's insistence on handling disputes bilaterally with individual countries, while ASEAN wants to speak as a group.

Obama became the first US president to attend the East Asia summit in Bali in 2011 and also took part in the 2012 meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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