Beijing warned Washington against taking sides in South China Sea disputes as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Indonesia on Monday. The US has refocused its foreign policy on the Asia-Pacific region.
Clinton flew into Jakarta from a weekend summit at Rarotonga in the remote Cook Islands where she announced $32 million (25.6 million euros) in aid for South Pacific nations while playing down analysts' suggestions of resurgent China-US rivalries.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China "hoped the US side will uphold the wider interests of peace and stability and honor its commitments of not taking sides."
The official Xinhua news agency went further, accusing the US of "trying to alienate China from countries around the South China Sea."
In Jakarta, Clinton held talks with Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on long-term cooperation and was also due to visit the headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
At its summit in Cambodia in July, the 10 nations that make up ASEAN failed to reach a consensus on how to respond to China as a rising power.
Two ASEAN members with maritime territorial claims, the Philippines and Vietnam, recently accused China of intimidation after it established a remote garrison in the South China Sea. The waterway is used by half of the world's cargo ships.
Clinton's advisors downplay strains
US officials flying with Clinton said she backed a recent ASEAN statement of principles aimed at establishing a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
"The most important thing is that we end up in a diplomatic process where these issues are addressed in strong diplomatic conversation between a unified ASEAN and China rather than through any kind of coercion," one senior US official told the news agency AFP.
The Sydney-based Lowy Institute think tank says China's aid program in the South Pacific amounted to about $200 million last year, with a heavy emphasis on public works.
In recent years Chinese aid has helped build a sports stadium in Papua New Guinea, a new port in Tonga as well as police and court buildings in Rarotonga.
The US spends about $300 million on Pacific nations, including $100 million on military assistance, compared to $1.2 billion from Australia.
Pacific increasingly important
Stephen Howes, a professor of development policy at the Australian National University told the news agency Reuters that Clinton's tour showed that the Pacific "is becoming of greater importance, not less."
"More broadly, it is China asserting itself as a global power and expanding its aid and investment from state-owned companies," Howes said.
Secretary of State Clinton is due to visit Beijing on Wednesday, followed by stopovers in Brunei and East Timor.
ipj/pfd (Reuters, AFP, dpa)