Kerry to press China over North Korea, urge ASEAN unity over South China Sea

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VIENTIANE (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began a visit to Asia on Sunday in which he plans to press China to put more curbs on North Korea after its nuclear test and to urge Southeast Asia to show unity in response to Beijing's claims in the South China Sea.

Kerry started what will be a three-day stay in the region in Laos, the 2016 chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He will head to Cambodia on Monday night and then on to Beijing for talks on Wednesday with the leadership there.

In Beijing, Kerry is expected to stress the need for a united front in response to this month's North Korean nuclear test through additional U.N. sanctions, a senior official of the U.S. State Department said. He will also argue for a tough unilateral response from China, North Korea's main ally and

neighbor.

"It is very important to present a united front ... but that united front has to be a firm one, not a flaccid one," the official told journalists traveling with Kerry.

It was particularly important to "cut off avenues of proliferation and retard North Korea's ability to gain the wherewithal to advance its nuclear and its missile programs," the official said, and that meant China doing more.

PHOTOS: Kerry's travels over the last couple weeks

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John Kerry goes to Saudi Arabia, Switzerland (Jan 2016)
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Kerry to press China over North Korea, urge ASEAN unity over South China Sea
US Secretary of State John Kerry walks into the Landmark Hotel upon arrival in Vientiane, Laos, on January 24, 2016. Kerry is in Laos on the third leg of his latest round-the-world diplomatic mission, which will also take him to Cambodia and China. / AFP / POOL / Jacquelyn Martin (Photo credit should read JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry waves before boarding his plane as he leaves the Saudi capital Riyadh for Laos on January 24, 2016. John Kerry reassured Saudi Arabia of the 'solid relationship' between both countries, even after the lifting of sanctions on the kingdom's regional rival Iran. / AFP / POOL / Jacquelyn Martin (Photo credit should read JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to members of the media at King Salman Regional Air Base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, center, at the King's farm, on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. Kerryâs trip is expected to last nine days and to encompass stops in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Cambodia, and China. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, shake hands after speaking to the media together at King Salman Regional Air Base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. Kerryâs trip is expected to last nine days and to encompass stops in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Cambodia, and China. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, centre, arrives for a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. Kerryâs trip is expected to last nine days and to encompass stops in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Cambodia, and China. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi, swap papers as they sign an agreement on science and technology cooperation at the Derby Hotel in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. After attending the World Economic Forum, Kerry is expected to leave Switzerland on Friday for Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. Kerryâs trip is expected to last nine days and to encompass stops in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Cambodia, and China. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, arrives for a meeting with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi at the Derby Hotel in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. After attending the World Economic Forum, Kerry is expected to leave Switzerland on Friday for Saudi Arabia. At right is senior aide Jason Meininger. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
REMOVES EXTRANEOUS WORD - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves Zurich, Switzerland en route to Saudi Arabia after attending the World Economic Forum, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. Kerryâs trip is expected to last nine days and to encompass stops in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Cambodia, and China. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting about Syria, in Zurich, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, before Kerry was to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. Kerryâs trip is expected to last nine days and to encompass stops in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Cambodia, and China. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Zurich, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, where he is expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about Syria, and later attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. Kerryâs trip is expected to last nine days and to encompass stops in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Cambodia, and China. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to journalists about his negotiations with Iran upon his arrival from Vienna at Joint Base Andrews in Washington Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. Four Americans and seven Iranians got tickets to freedom in a prisoner swap playing out alongside the kick-start of an accord lifting heavy international sanctions on Iran in return for its agreement to pull back its nuclear program. A fifth American was released separately. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)
Staff board the plane ahead of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's arrival to depart for Switzerland, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to journalists about his negotiations with Iran upon his arrival from Vienna at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. The Americans imprisoned by Iran began their journey home Sunday, their friends and family awaiting emotional reunions, after delicate diplomatic negotiations that played out quietly in the shadows of international nuclear talks. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement that sanctions will be lifted on Iran after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal, in Vienna, Saturday Jan. 16, 2016. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signs a series of documents in Vienna, Austria, Saturday Jan. 16, 2016. U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry confirms Iran in compliance with nuclear deal and lifts US nuclear-related sanctions. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal, in Vienna, Saturday Jan. 16, 2016. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, speaks during his meeting with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, in London Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. The two met to discuss Syria and Iran and condemned the bombings in Jakarta. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, speaks during his meeting with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, in London Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. The two met to discuss Syria and Iran and condemned the bombings in Jakarta. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)
Secretary of State John Kerry, center, with Defense Secretary Ash Carter, right, and his Philippines counterpart Secretary of Foreign Relations Albert Del Rosario, speaks during a meeting between the U.S. and the Philippines delegation in the Benjamin Franklin room at the Department of State, in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, communicates from aboard his plane Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, on his way to Vienna, Austria on what is expected to be "implementation day," the day the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP)
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North Korea said on Jan. 6 it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, although Washington voiced skepticism as to whether the device was actually that powerful.

"North Korea is still engaged in illicit and proliferation activities," the official said. "They have very few avenues for conducting business with the international community that don't in some fashion involve transiting China.

"Despite the determination and efforts of the Chinese government, clearly there is more that they can do."

In Beijing Kerry plans "in depth" discussions on the South China Sea, a source of increasing tension between China and ASEAN countries and the United States due to China's building of artificial islands suitable for use as military bases, the official said.

CHINESE ALLY

First though in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, Kerry will seek to bolster ASEAN unity and the bloc's resolve to stand up to China in the lead-up to a summit President Barack Obama has called with the bloc's leaders for Feb. 15-16 in Sunnylands, California.

Laos has close political and economic ties with its giant neighbor China. The Obama administration worries that it might behave as Cambodia did when it held the ASEAN chair in 2012 and was accused of obstructing consensus in the bloc over the South China Sea.

Besides its China ties, as a landlocked country Laos has less interest in the maritime disputes that several ASEAN members have with Beijing.

The U.S. official said he had heard from virtually every ASEAN country that the Cambodian chairmanship had left "a black mark" on the bloc that was not to be repeated.

So far, Laos was off to a good start overseeing ASEAN statements on world events, the official said, adding: "It's my expectation that the Lao will be a responsible chair for 2016."

Kerry will seek to set an encouraging tone in Laos by discussing increased U.S. aid, including more funding for work to dispose of unexploded U.S. ordnance left over from the Vietnam War. During that conflict Laos became one of the most heavily bombed countries in history as the United States sought to destroy communist supply lines running through it.

The main announcements, though, are expected to come when Barack Obama attends a regional summit towards the end of the year and becomes the first U.S. president ever to visit Laos.

In Cambodia, Kerry will meet Hun Sen, now Asia's longest serving prime minister, and will draw attention to U.S. concerns about human rights and treatment of government critics by meeting opposition members and civil activists, the State Department official said.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Trevelyan)

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