US President Obama heads back to Washington from Cambodia, after meeting leaders from southeast Asia, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea, to discuss political and economic issues in a region now seen as the fulcrum of global economic growth.
Territorial wrangles over the South China Sea, much of which is claimed by China as well as a number of other smaller countries, dominated the summit of Asian leaders. Territorial tensions between China and Japan were also closely watched at the summit. Obama's first foreign trip after his reelection saw some surface compromise on the issues, while a new trade bloc looks set to form without the participation of the US.
With China's Wen Jiabao soon to step down as prime minister, the summit likely marked the last official meeting between Wen and Obama. And both world leaders sought to avoid a direct confrontation.
The US and China do not appear willing to risk superpower tension at this time over the resource-rich areas around the contested islets and shoals, says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, head of the Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok.
"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, which can increase prosperity and global growth," said Obama after meeting China's Wen.
Obama and China play nice?
With a focus on economics, the US appeared to hold a noncommittal line on security issues during the talks, though it has spoken strongly on the South China Sea in the past, citing the need for dialogue while negotiating with Vietnam and the Philippines about supplying military hardware.
Now, however, President Obamas message is there needs to be a reduction of the tensions, US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said after Tuesday's meetings. There is no reason to risk any potential escalation, particularly when you have two of the worlds largest economies China and Japan associated with some of those disputes.
China, too, sought to be diplomatic. We do not want to bring the disputes to an occasion like this, Wen told the summit, according to Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying, who briefed media on Tuesday evening.
It seemed Chinas apparent effort to have host Cambodia play bad cop, however, may have backfired: Phnom Penh was forced to backtrack on assertions that southeast Asian countries reached a consensus that they would not internationalize the South China Sea issue seen as code for Chinese requests that nonclaimant powers such the US and Japan steer clear of the dispute. Closing the summit, Cambodia's usually voluble Prime Minister Hun Sen refused to take questions during a press conference, saying "I am exhausted after these three days."
The Philippines, a US ally, said that there was no such agreement between member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and backed by Vietnam and Singapore, forced the final ASEAN communique on the issue to erase a section claiming a consensus.
There are seven claimants to parts of the oil-rich South China Sea and its islands: China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
Both the US and Japan raised the South China Sea issue in their meetings with ASEAN. …