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
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
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
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
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
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. …