US Secretary of State John Kerry was put on the defensive at an Asean security conference yesterday amid claims of widespread spying that also targeted non-European allies including Japan, South Korea and India.
The latest allegations put America's top diplomat in an awkward position as he arrived in Brunei, with the European countries already demanding answers after claims the US had spied on the EU and European embassies in America.
Kerry said nearly all national governments, not just the United States, used "lots of activities" to safeguard their interests and security. He also confirmed that EU High Representative Catherine Ashton had raised the issue in a meeting with him in Brunei but gave no details of their exchange. He said he had yet to see details of the newspaper allegations.
"I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs and national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that. All I know is that is not unusual for lots of nations," Kerry said.
Revelations about the US surveillance programme, made public by Edward Snowden, have raised a furore in the United States and abroad over the balance between privacy rights and national security.
Kerry said the Obama administration believed China could have aided the United States in its efforts to arrest Snowden while he was in Hong Kong.
"It is safe to say that the Obama administration believes that our friends in China could in fact have made a difference here, but we have a lot of issues that we are dealing with right now," Kerry said. He said he and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had discussed Snowden during their meetings on the sidelines of the summit.
Some EU policymakers said talks on a free-trade agreement between Washington and the EU should be put on ice until further clarification from the US. "We cannot accept this kind of behaviour between partners and allies," French President Francois Hollande said, demanding the United States stop spying on diplomatic missions immediately. "There can be no negotiations or transactions in all areas until we have obtained these guarantees."
Germany and Italy also demanded an explanation.
Officials in Japan and South Korea said they were aware of the reports and had asked Washington to clarify them.
"I'm aware of the article, but we still haven't confirmed the contents of the story. Obviously ... we'll seek an appropriate confirmation on this," said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga.
"We saw the report and will do a fact-check," a South Korean government official said.
India's External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, who is also in Brunei, said: "These are all areas of great strategic importance that we have to co-operate and collaborate in, in counter-terrorism measures."