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US asserts influence in South China Sea dispute

During her visit to Indonesia, Hillary Clinton praised the cooperation between ASEAN member states. The US hopes Indonesia can mediate territorial disputes over the South China Sea.

Its strategic location in Southeast Asia makes Indonesia an important player in US foreign policy. It's situated between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, at the crossroads of major trade routes. Indonesia is geopolitically valuable for the US and its partners in the region, especially Japan and South Korea. And both the US and China are seeking even greater influence in the Southeast Asian region.

During her visit to Indonesia earlier this week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the dispute over sovereignty in the South China Sea. "The United States believes very strongly that no party should take any steps that would increase tensions or do anything that would be viewed as coercive or intimidating to advance their territorial claims," she said.

China has made claims primarily to maritime territories belonging to the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as to territories belonging to Brunei and Malaysia, all four of them members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The US hopes Indonesia can unify ASEAN members on the dispute. The last ASEAN summit in July failed to bring about any resolution because the host country, Cambodia, didn't put it on the agenda. Some ASEAN members blamed China accusing it of having pressured Cambodia. China rejects multilateral negotiations and prefers bilateral talks.

--- DW-Grafik: Peter Steinmetz

Chinese territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea

Competing for influence

Philips Vermonte, an Indonesian political scientist from the Center for Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, says China certainly demonstrated its great influence at the ASEAN summit in Cambodia. ASEAN wants to appear as a neutral and independent body. But now it's coming under the influence of two competing superpowers. "Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand are closer to the US, while China has greater influence on Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia," says Vermonte, adding that Indonesia and Malaysia are taking a more neutral stance.

Indonesia, which maintains very good trade relations with China, doesn't want to let the conflict escalate. In recent months, the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has held talks with neighboring countries and China. During a visit to Indonesia by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, in early August, Jiechi said both China and ASEAN wanted to resolve the dispute diplomatically.

Foreign Ministers hold hands as they pose for a photograph during the 13th ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Foreign Minister's meeting at the office of the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh July 10, 2012. (L-R) Myanmar's Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, Philippine's Foreign Minister Albert Rosario, Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, Thailand's Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, Vietnam's Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh, South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Han, China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, Cambodia's Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, Japan's Deputy Foreign Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, Brunei's Foreign Minister Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, Indonesia's director general for Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) I Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja, Laos' Deputy Foreign Minister Alounkeo Kittikhoun, Malaysia's Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan. REUTERS/Samrang Pring (CAMBODIA - Tags: POLITICS)

The 2012 ASEAN summit in Cambodia failed to provide a resolution for the South China Sea conflict

Indonesia seeks stronger role

In recent years, Indonesia has assumed a more important international role in the region. That's become possible because the country is nowadays considered a stable democracy in the region. In 2011, American organization Freedom House listed Indonesia as a free nation on its Freedom Index, well above other ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand. Indonesia's political stability has allowed it to grow enomically, and for the past several years their annual growth has remained stable at around six percent.

"China is also been looking to get close to Indonesia," says Vermonte. "For example, they have been financing construction and infrastructure projects. China has also offered military equipment." Clinton's visit is being viewed as a sign that the US wants to curtail China's growing influence in the region.

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