China's Xi holds Malaysia talks in regional charm offensive
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (R) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping after a press conference in Malaysia on October 4, 2013
Xi's visits to Indonesia and Malaysia and his scheduled attendance at a regional summit next week have taken on added significance with the announcement that the US president would stay home to focus on a budget impasse in Washington.
Some Southeast Asian countries have expressed increasing alarm at Beijing's assertive claims to waters and islands in the South China Sea.
But Xi, addressing reporters after meeting Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, said China was committed to closer cooperation with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
"China will continue to provide firm support to the central role of ASEAN in East Asian cooperation and we will be happy to see a greater role played by Malaysia in this region," Xi said in a joint press appearance with his host.
With Beijing and Washington vying for influence in the strategic region, Obama had planned to get face time with Asian leaders and rub shoulders with Xi at an international summit in Bali next week.
Obama also planned to visit Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Instead, US Secretary of State John Kerry will take Obama's place so that the president can stay home to focus on the budget gridlock that triggered the first government shutdown in 17 years.
Analysts said the developments deal a potential blow to the Obama administration's "pivot" policy -- the refocusing of its economic and strategic attention on Asia -- amid the unease over China.
They said the no-show could allow regional competitors such as China to make the case that Washington is an unreliable partner.
Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Obama's decision "could signal the start of the unravelling of the US pivot to Asia".
Charles Morrison, president of the Honolulu-based East-West Center, told AFP the episode raised questions over whether the US "can sustain a leadership position".
"Obama's trip cancellation reduces the visibility of the American role in Asia," he said.
Xi is on his first trip to Southeast Asia since he took China's helm in March. The journey will culminate in his inaugural appearance at the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation bloc in Indonesia on Monday and Tuesday.
Premier Li Keqiang will then represent China at an East Asia summit in Brunei on the following two days.
Obama had been expected to attend both meetings.
Xi now "has the floor to himself and it makes the US as a country, its political system and democracy, look weak," said Ian Storey of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
"Meanwhile China looks flush with cash and full of confidence and it is relatively stable at home."
Despite tensions over maritime claims, Xi's trip has served to stress the crucial importance of economic ties with China.
Xi and Najib agreed to work on increasing bilateral trade to $160 billion by 2017, from $94 billion last year. China is now Malaysia's biggest trading partner, recently overtaking the United States.
Later on Friday the two leaders were to oversee the signing of a five-year commitment to strengthen economic and trade cooperation, after similar pledges were made during Xi's earlier stop in Indonesia.
In Jakarta Xi told parliament that territorial disputes should be resolved in a "peaceful manner", while offering no new proposals.
China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan all have claims -- some overlapping -- to the resource-rich South China Sea, which analysts consider one of the world's potential flashpoints.
China agreed this year to discuss with ASEAN an eventual binding Code of Conduct in the sea to prevent accidental conflict.
Analysts say, however, that Beijing will never back down on territorial claims that include virtually all of the strategic waterway, and that holding discussions appears to be a attempt by China to deflect accusations of bullying.
"Concluding an agreement (on a Code of Conduct) does not appear to be a pressing goal for China at this point in time," said Carla Freeman of Johns Hopkins University in the United States, who added that China and ASEAN face a continued "rocky road" over the sea issue.
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