Kerry urges progress on territorial disputes in the South China Sea

China uses absence of Barack Obama from Asian summit to boost its own position

US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to put increased pressure on Southeast Asian leaders and China to discuss South China Sea territorial disputes at an Asian summit, despite Beijing's resistance to public discussion of the issue.

Mr Kerry held talks at the East Asia summit in Brunei with leaders of Southeast Asian nations and, separately, met Chinese premier Li Keqiang on the sidelines of the gathering.

At the same time, Mr Kerry has had to soothe fears in the region about Washington's ongoing fiscal impasse, which forced President Barack Obama to cancel his planned trip to the earlier Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali.

The Chinese have used Mr Obama's absence to boost their own profile in the region, with Mr Li making pledges to increase Chinese investment in the region.

With the US in a weaker position than usual, Beijing used the opportunity to strike a more conciliatory tone on China’s long-running maritime disputes with several of its neighbours.

China has become increasingly assertive over its claims to pretty much of all of the South China Sea, creating tensions with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and longstanding rival Taiwan.

“We’ve always agreed that South China Sea disputes should be dealt with in a direct way, and to seek a resolution through negotiations and talks,” Mr Li said in a speech at the summit, carried by the Xinhua news agency.

China, however, remained “unshakable in its resolve to uphold national sovereignty and territorial integrity”, he said.

Xinhua reported that Mr Li told Mr Kerry on Wednesday that Beijing was “highly concerned” about Washington’s debt ceiling problem and its failure to resolve its debt crisis.

China is the largest overseas holder of US government debt and has issued many warnings about the danger of a US default. The US Treasury says Beijing holds nearly €1 trillion of Treasury debt, and it also has additional US agency debt.

Mr Kerry reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to a strategic “rebalancing” toward Asia, despite Mr Obama’s absence, for which the secretary of state apologised.

“That rebalance is a commitment, it is there to stay and will continue into the future,” Mr Kerry told leaders of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

"I assure you that these events in Washington are a moment in politics and not more than that.­ The partnership that we share with Asean remains a top priority for the Obama administration."

Washington has said that it wants to build up its “Asia Pivot” but says that while it is neutral in the issue, it wants talks to end the dispute.

Tensions are running especially high between China and the Philippines over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea. Washington has defence treaties with Manila and the Philippines government has irritated China by filing an arbitration case with the United Nations on the validity of China's claims.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino stressed the importance of the rule of law to the region's economic well-being in a speech this week.

“Our development as a region cannot be realized in an international environment where the rule of law does not exist,” Mr Aquino said.