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Clinton to urge ASEAN unity on South China Sea

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is calling for Southeast Asian states to present a united front to the Chinese in dealing with territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Clinton will be in Indonesia's capital Monday to offer strong U.S. support for a regionally endorsed plan to ease rising tensions by implementing a code of conduct for all claimants to disputed islands. Jakarta is the headquarters of the Association of South East Asian Nations, and Clinton will also press the group to insist that China agree to a formal mechanism to reduce short-term risks of conflict and ultimately come to final settlements over sovereignty.

She wants ``to strengthen ASEAN unity going forward,'' a senior U.S. official told reporters on board Clinton's plane as she flew from the Cook Islands to Australia for a brief refueling stop en route to Indonesia.

Indonesia played a leading role in putting the six-point plan together after ASEAN was unable to reach consensus on the matter in July. The official said the U.S. is ``encouraged'' by the plan but wants it acted on _ particularly implementation and enforcement of the code of conduct, which has languished since a preliminary framework for it was first agreed in 2002. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to publicly preview Clinton's meetings.

The U.S. has asserted a national security interest in the peaceful resolution to South China Sea disputes and hopes for progress to be made before a November summit of East Asian leaders that President Barack Obama plans to attend.

The U.S. position has riled China, which has become increasingly assertive in pressing its territorial claims with its smaller neighbors and wants the disputes to be resolved individually with each country. The U.S. says it takes no position on the conflicting claims but wants to see them resolved between China and ASEAN, which has collective clout that its 10 members do not have individually.

Clinton will travel to China on Tuesday to continue talks on the South China Sea and a number of other issues, including the crisis in Syria and ways to deal with Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs.

Clinton will be in Indonesia on the second stop of an 11-day, six-nation tour that will take her to East Timor, Brunei and Russia's Far East after her stop in China.

In Indonesia, the official said, Clinton would also raise human rights concerns, including a recent uptick in mob violence against religious minorities.

The official described the incidents as ``disturbing'' and said Clinton would be asking Indonesian authorities how they intend to deal with them. The U.S. has championed Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, as a model for a moderate Islamic democracy,

Human Rights Watch on Sunday called for Clinton to bring up such cases and press the government ``to take concrete steps to address rising religious intolerance'' in Indonesia. It also asked her to address Indonesian authorities' use of blasphemy and criminal defamation laws that it says are being used to persecute minorities and political activists.

``Indonesia needs to recognize that oppressive laws and policies against religious minorities fuel violence and discrimination,'' the human rights group said. (AP)


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