Obama’s balancing act at 21st Asean Summit
US President Barack Obama has urged Asian leaders to rein in tensions in the South China Sea and other disputed territories but stopped short of firmly backing allies Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in their disputes with China at the 21st Asean summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Mr Obama's comments at the regional summit meeting illustrate how he intends to manage Sino-US ties that have become increasingly fraught across a range of issues, including trade, commercial espionage and the territorial disputes between Beijing and Washington's Asian allies.
"President Obama's message is there needs to be a reduction of the tensions," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said after the East Asia Summit in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
Also present at the summit were leaders from China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the 10 members of Asean.
"There is no reason to risk any potential escalation, particularly when you have two of the world's largest economies - China and Japan - associated with some of those disputes," he said.
That diplomatic response came at the end of a three-day trip by Mr Obama to longtime US ally Thailand, new friend Myanmar and China ally Cambodia in a visit that underlined the expansion of US military and economic interests in Asia under last year's so-called "pivot" from conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Mr Obama's attention was divided as he tried to stay on top of the unfolding crisis in Gaza. He dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the summit to the Middle East for a round of troubleshooting talks in Israel, the West Bank and Egypt.
Beijing claims the South China Sea as its territory based on historical records, putting it up against Vietnam, the Philippines and other claimant nations.
The area is thought to hold vast, untapped oil and natural gas reserves.
The Philippines, which calls the maritime area the Western Philippines Sea, sent a letter of protest Tuesday to Cambodia after the summit hosts said Southeast Asian leaders had agreed not to internationalise the row over the South China Sea and to confine talks to between Asean and China - a claim disputed by Philippine President Benigno Aquino.
A stern-faced Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said his delegation had been shocked when a Cambodian official told a news conference that Asean leaders had reached a consensus at their summit on Sunday. "Consensus means everybody. I was there, the president [Mr Aquino] was there and we're saying we're not with it because there's no consensus," he told reporters.
"How can they say there's consensus when we're saying there's no consensus?"
It was the second time in five months China has appeared to use its influence over Cambodia to stifle debate over the territorial dispute.
A meeting of Asean foreign ministers in July, which was also hosted by Cambodia, broke down in acrimony and failed to agree on a communique for the first time, just weeks after a standoff between a Philippine warship and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the maritime dispute with China is already being discussed in an international setting - the Asean-China track.
"Asean-China relations have smoothened well with a clear focus under the Asean-China track including the implementation of the Declaration of Conducts of the Parties in the East Sea [DOC]," said Mr Marty. He was referring to a joint declaration which embodies the collective commitment of Asean members and China to comply with DOC principles to promote peace, stability and mutual trust. But he said he could not say when there would be a solution as talks were still ongoing.
"The fact that the DOC has been kept alive for 10 years illustrates how good this process is.
"Now we must ensure that situations on the ground remain conducive to continue the dialogue and negotiations," he said.
Meanwhile, in his first meeting with a Chinese leader since his re-election, Mr Obama said Washington and its chief economic rival must work together to "establish clear rules of the road" for trade and investment.
"It is very important that as two of the largest economies in the world that we work to establish clear rules of the road internationally for trade and investment," Mr Obama told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
"I'm committed to working with China and I'm committed to working with Asia," Mr Obama said.
China and the United States had a "special responsibility" to lead the way on sustained global growth, he added before the meeting was closed to media.
Mr Wen highlighted "the differences and disagreements between us", but said these could be resolved through trade and investment.