Obama plays the diplomat in Asia

US President Barack Obama yawns as he attends an East Asian Summit Plenary Session. Picture: Getty
US President Barack Obama yawns as he attends an East Asian Summit Plenary Session. Picture: Getty
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US PRESIDENT Barack Obama has straddled a careful line in his country’s “pivot” towards the Pacific region, urging Asian leaders to rein in tensions in the South China Sea and other disputed territory, but stopping short of firmly backing allies Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in their disputes with China.

“President Obama’s message is there needs to be a reduction of the tensions,” US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said after the East Asia Summit in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

“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.”
The comments appeared carefully calibrated not to offend ­either side.

The remarks follow a three-day trip by Mr Obama to three strategically important south-east Asian countries: old US ally Thailand, new friend Burma and Chinese ally Cambodia, in a visit that underlines Washington’s expanding military and economic interests in Asia under last year’s so-called “pivot” away from conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

A decades-old territorial squabble over the South China Sea is entering a new and more contentious chapter, as claimant nations search deeper into disputed waters for energy supplies while building up their navies and military alliances with other nations, particularly with the US.

Beijing claims almost the entire sea as its territory, based on historical records, setting it directly against US allies Vietnam and the Philippines. Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts of the sea.

The Philippines lodged a formal protest yesterday against summit host Cambodia, accusing the Chinese ally of trying to stifle discussions on the South China Sea when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders met on Monday.

Yesterday, China defended its stand to not discuss the South China Sea issue at multilateral forums. Beijing prefers to deal with other claimants on a bilateral basis – meaning it can use its clout against smaller nations.

“We do not want to bring the disputes to an occasion like this,” Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was quoted as having told the summit. “We do not want to give over emphasis to the territorial disputes and differences.”

Several leaders raised the South China Sea issue, though it failed to earn a single mention in an 11-page concluding statement read by Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen – a victory for China, which has sought to keep it off the formal agenda.

Hun Sen took no questions at the news conference unveiling the concluding statement.

Earlier, in his first meeting with a Chinese leader since his re-election, Mr Obama said the US and its chief economic rival must work together to “establish clear rules of the road” for trade and investment. But he stopped short of accusing China of violating those rules, a subject that was a hot topic during his re-election campaign.

Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda told Mr Obama that mounting Asian security problems raise the importance of the US-Japan alliance, a veiled reference to tensions over Chinese sovereignty claims and maritime disputes.

Sino-Japanese relations are also under strain after the Japanese government bought disputed islands – known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China – from a private Japanese owner in September, triggering violent protests and calls for boycotts of Japanese products across China.