BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry swapped his Mideast peace portfolio for issues in emerging Southeast Asia and road bumps in U.S. relations with Russia and China when he landed Monday in Brunei for a regional security conference.
The tiny sultanate in the South China Sea, where he is attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, is the last stop on Kerry's two-week tour of seven countries in Asia and the Middle East.
He landed in Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, after flying overnight from Tel Aviv, where he spent four days in long meetings trying to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. During the flight, Kerry got an update on the ongoing discussions by phone from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On the sidelines of the ASEAN conference, Kerry is scheduled to have a lengthy chat with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that likely will center on the Syrian crisis. Russia is a key backer of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is fighting rebel forces that have been being armed by the U.S. and other nations.
"Clearly, part of my conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Russians will be how we can maximize our efforts together to have an impact on this," Kerry said in Tel Aviv before he left Israel. "I'm not going to go into greater detail with respect to that conversation, but I very much look forward to meeting with Sergey Lavrov when I get there."
In his meetings with both Lavrov and the Chinese minister, the discussion also is likely to include National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who is wanted in the U.S. on espionage charges.
The White House has said Hong Kong's refusal to detain Snowden has "unquestionably" hurt U.S. relations with China. After Hong Kong's government claimed it had to allow Snowden to flee because the U.S. got Snowden's middle name wrong in documents requesting his arrest, the Justice Department said the U.S. didn't buy that excuse, calling it "a pretext for not acting."
Russia called Snowden a "free man" and also refused to turn him over to Washington. He is believed to be holed up in an airport transit zone in Moscow.
Kerry is also slated to have talks on the sidelines of the meeting with his counterparts in China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian nations.
North Korea's nuclear ambitions are expected to be a hot-button issue throughout the conference. Nations attending are expected to reiterate a call for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Many want North Korea to abide by its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions and commitments it made following six-party talks in 2005.
Another issue that will take center stage at the conference is territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia over the South China Sea and its potentially oil- and gas-rich islands. Several claimants want group discussions in order to create a legally binding "code of conduct" to prevent clashes in the sea, but Beijing has not clearly stated when it will sit down with the 10-nation ASEAN bloc to discuss such a nonaggression pact.
"We have a strong interest in the manner in which the disputes of the South China Sea are addressed, and in the conduct of the parties," Kerry said in opening remarks at the conference. "We very much hope to see progress soon on a substantive code of conduct in order to help ensure stability in this vital region."
Kerry reiterated U.S. commitment to the ASEAN region where he said roughly half of the region's 600 million people — a population as large as the United States — will be defined as middle class by the end of the decade. The U.S. commitment is not meant as a counterweight to any specific country in the region, Kerry said in an apparent reference to economic powerhouse, China.
"For any country that questions whether the United States will sustain our greater engagement in the Asia-Pacific, I want to put those concerns to rest — completely — today," Kerry said. "President Obama has made a smart and strategic commitment to rebalance our interests and investments in Asia.
"We have many goals. We have economic and security interests. But I want to emphasize, importantly, our actions are not intended to contain or to counterbalance any one country."