BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei -- Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that relations with China would not be upset by allegations that it had facilitated the flight of Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive former national security contractor.
Mr. Snowden's ability to avoid detention in Hong Kong and travel to Moscow, despite a request by the United States that he be arrested, initially led to an angry response by Obama administration officials.
The White House last week described the development as a "serious setback" to American-Chinese relations, while Mr. Kerry himself warned that it would have "consequences" for ties with Beijing.
But after a meeting with his Chinese counterpart at a conference hosted by Southeast Asian nations here, Mr. Kerry struck a conciliatory note, casting the Snowden affair as one issue among many.
Asserting that Beijing had been helpful in pressuring North Korea to refrain from provocative actions, Mr. Kerry said that the Obama administration was committed to cooperation with China on issues ranging from maritime security to economic relations.
"Life in international relationships is often complicated by the fact that you have many things you have to work on simultaneously, and so we will continue to do that even as we are obviously concerned about what happened with Mr. Snowden," he said.
The comments appear to reflect a new phase in the Obama administration's handling of the Snowden affair. Instead of casting its request for the detention of Mr. Snowden as urgent business, administration officials now appear to be trying to play down the episode, perhaps recognizing that the United States' ability to force a resolution is limited.
Mr. Kerry arrived here on Monday after four days of intensive diplomacy in the Middle East that he said could put direct Israeli-Palestinian talks within reach.
A major aim of Mr. Kerry's presence here has been to demonstrate to Asian diplomats that he is no less committed to Mr. Obama's "pivot" to Asia than his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton. When a reporter for The Brunei Times asked him how he could carry forward a policy of emphasizing relations with Asia when he was focusing so much on the Middle East, Mr. Kerry appeared to bristle.
"I'm here," said Mr. Kerry, who said it was his second visit as secretary of state to Asia. "Over the next three and a half years of the Obama presidency, you will see energized and serious engagement in continuing the rebalance efforts."
But it was clear that the Middle East has been on his mind. During his flight to Brunei, Mr. Kerry spoke by phone to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel about issues in restarting the peace talks.
And during a news conference here, Mr. Kerry asserted that he had been so focused on his Middle East diplomacy in recent days that he was not aware of news media reports that Mr. Snowden had made available classified documents indicating that the National Security Agency had spied on the European Union.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, who was also attending the conference here in Brunei, raised the reports with Mr. Kerry. On Sunday, Ms. Ashton issued a statement saying that she had asked the United States for an explanation.
"I honestly had not heard about it," Mr. Kerry told reporters, adding that he had told Ms. Ashton that he would look into the allegations and get back to her.
At the same time, Mr. Kerry seemed to be preparing a defense along the lines that many nations engage in such spying.
"I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs of national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security, and all kinds of information contribute to that," he said.
Mr. Kerry's conciliatory stance on China was similar to comments he made last week about Russia's involvement in the Snowden episode.
After warning that Russia's decision to shelter Mr. Snowden, at least temporarily, could have "consequence" for the Obama administration's relations with the Kremlin, Mr. Kerry softened his tone and stressed that the United States was not looking for a confrontation.
Mr. Kerry was scheduled to meet here with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, on Tuesday, and a major agenda item is Mr. Kerry's efforts to elicit Russian cooperation in pressing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to yield power and accept a political transition.
One issue at the conference that was not overshadowed by the Snowden affair was the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and efforts to avert a military confrontation there.
In an address to the conference on Monday, Mr. Kerry endorsed the nascent efforts to draft a code of conduct to discourage military incidents in the South China Sea.
""While we do not take a position on a competing territorial claim over land features, 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," Mr. Kerry said.
"We very much hope to see progress soon on a substantive code of conduct in order to help ensure stability in this vital region," he added.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have become an increasing worry for the United States and its allies in the region. The area is rich with oil and gas and has been the source of tensions between the Philippines and China, among other nations. It also sits astride major shipping routes vital for world commerce.
In comments to the conference on Sunday, Albert del Rosario, the foreign secretary of the Philippines, accused China of militarizing the area.
"The overwhelming presence of Chinese ships, including military and paramilitary ships, and the issuance of threats pose serious challenges for the region as a whole," he said.
China has said it will consult on a code of conduct, which would aim to discourage military incidents, when officials from Southeast Asian countries gather at a meeting in Beijing with foreign ministers in September. That development that was welcomed at the conference here, but American officials also noted that it just the beginning of a long process that might eventually produce a set of set of explicit arrangements and procedures to reduce the risk of military conflict.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.