Is China beginning to show some flexibility on the contentious South China Sea issue?
U.S. officials who accompanied President Barack Obama to the East Asia Summit in Indonesia think so, as the forum at the weekend grappled with the issue despite vehement objections from China.
But commentaries in China's state media give no indication of any change in Beijing's position at the 18-nation summit, which saw the highest level discussions of the disputed South China Sea so far.
China says it controls the whole of the vast South China Sea, one of the most vital shipping channels in the world, and rejects any multilateral negotiations on the issue, refusing to submit to international arbitration over any competing claims.
It is only agreeable to discussing bilaterally with the four Southeast Asian nations which have overlapping claims in the resource-rich sea — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
The Southeast Asian claimants as well as the United States and Japan want a multilateral approach to resolving the dispute.
At the East Asia Summit, 16 of the 18 leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, raised the South China Sea issue, U.S. officials said.
Obama called for "freedom of navigation and overflight" and use of "collaborative diplomatic processes" to address disputes, and expressed "strong opposition to the threat or use of force by any party to advance its territorial or maritime claims," a White House statement said.
He also called for swift efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China to reach a full code of conduct agreement over the resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.
Earlier this year, ASEAN and China approved guidelines to forge the code of conduct agreement following tensions after China harassed vessels from Vietnam and the Philippines in disputed waters.
Hanoi and Manila then sought greater U.S. engagement in the region to check what they call Beijing's increasing assertiveness on the back of its rising military strength and growing economic clout.
The Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, all maintain various claims to parts of the South China Sea. <br />
At the summit, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao appeared to be less confrontational than in the past as he rebutted points raised by other leaders, U.S. officials said.
Wen referred to, among other developments, a 2002 decision by ASEAN and China to devise a code of conduct to resolve sea disputes peacefully.
But he "did not use many of the more assertive formulas that we frequently hear from the Chinese, particularly in public,” one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Now, what struck me about that statement is not what he said, but what he didn't say," said the official, according to background briefing notes provided by the White House.
"Typically, the Chinese public posture has been to be vaguely positive about the idea of reaching a code of conduct, but then to qualify it by saying, at an appropriate time and when the circumstances are propitious. He [Wen] conspicuously omitted both of those caveats."
The official said that Wen also did not say, as officials had in the past, that the disputes should be resolved bilaterally.
"Now, here, too, I can't say that the Chinese have abandoned their position that the South China Sea competing claims need to be resolved one-on-one, 'mano a mano,' China versus each one of the small other claimants. They may not be abandoning that position, but he didn't say it."
But according to China's state news agency Xinhua, Wen had grudgingly agreed to discuss the South China Sea issue at the summit. He felt it "was not the right forum to discuss the issue."
"I don't want to discuss this issue at the summit, however, leaders of some countries mentioned China on the issue. It's impolite not to make a return for what one receives," Xinhua quoted him as saying.
Wen said "the dispute should be resolved among directly related sovereign countries through friendly consultation and negotiation in a peaceful way."
"It is known to all that South China Sea disputes are a bilateral issue between China and some relevant countries in the region," Xinhua said in a weekend commentary.
"However, the U.S. failed to show due respect for China's position on the issue and insisted on bringing the controversial topic" to the summit," the agency said.
It also attacked the United States, citing its recent high-profile pivot toward Asia and "attempts to interfere in territorial disputes in the South China Sea."Military rise
As part of the regional effort, Obama has launched a Pacific free-trade initiative that has excluded China so far and secured military-basing rights in Australia intended to check Beijing's military rise.
Some 2,500 U.S. Marines would be stationed in the northern Australian port of Darwin, a move which U.S. think tank Stratfor says highlights a possible need to respond to any "aggressive" Chinese military efforts, particularly in the South China Sea."
"[F]rom Washington’s perspective, this is all about returning to a more balanced global posture, prioritizing East Asia and the Pacific and rationalizing its presence and efforts there," said Stratfor's Director of Military Analysis Nathan Hughes.
"But to Beijing this looks a lot like the United States essentially doubling down with its closest allies and partners in what China can only assume is a potential attempt at encirclement," he said.
As part of the new strategy, the U.S. appears to be making a big push to reassure its allies such as Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan.
"What really concerns China is the foundation this creates for the U.S. to expand engagement with countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and India and others in the years ahead," Hughes said.
But China may have to blame itself for the problems it is facing now.
Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said it was China’s assertive behavior over the South China Sea that created the circumstances in which the United States could play such an enhanced role in the region.
She cited as an example the "general unattractive nationalist rhetoric" of Beijing’s official newspapers warning that if countries in Asia 'don’t want to change their ways' they will need to 'prepare for the sound of cannons.'”
She also referred to Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi's outburst at an ASEAN security forum last year where the South China Sea dispute was hotly discussed.
Yang was quoted saying at the meeting that "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact," triggering concerns in the region and undermining Beijing’s “peaceful rise" slogan.
"In some respects, Washington has done little more than to take advantage of Beijing’s missteps," Economy said.