Obama faces challenge forging front over South China Sea


MANILA: With the symbolic handshakes and unity photo ops, U.S. President Barack Obama’s high-profile summit with Southeast Asian leaders in California this week aims to step up pressure against China’s increasingly worrisome behavior in disputed waters. Forging a common front and encouraging bolder rhetoric against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, however, will be a challenge among the diverse collection of VIP guests, who did not criticize China by name in past joint summit statements as the disputes flared on and off in recent years.

Decisions by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the bloc they lead, can easily be stalled. ASEAN includes governments aligned either with Washington or Beijing. Only four of its 10 member states are locked in the disputes with China and Taiwan, leading to sometimes conflicting views on handling the long-simmering rifts.

The regional bloc decides by consensus, meaning just one member can effectively shoot down any statement detrimental to China.

In recent years, summit statements have expressed concern over the escalating conflicts and called for freedom of navigation and fly-overs in the disputed territories, but they have rarely gone to specifics.