US President Barack Obama urged Asian leaders to rein in tensions in the South China Sea and other disputed territories, but stopped short of firmly backing allies Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines in their disputes with China.
The comments by Obama at a regional summit meeting illustrate how he intends to manage Sino-US ties that have become more 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,” US 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, 10-member ASEAN, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
“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,” Rhodes said.
That diplomatic response comes at the end of a three-day trip by Obama to old US ally Thailand, new friend Myanmar and China ally Cambodia.
In his first meeting with a Chinese leader since his re-election, 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,” Obama told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶).
However, the US president stopped short of accusing China of violating those rules.
During the US presidential election, Obama accused his rival, Mitt Romney, of shipping US jobs to China when he was a businessman. Romney, in turn, denounced Obama for being “a near-supplicant to Beijing” on trade, human rights and security.
In Asia, those trade tensions overlap with friction over Chinese sovereignty claims on disputed islands. On Monday, the Philippines accused summit host Cambodia of trying to stifle discussions on the South China Sea, where Chinese claims overlap with those of ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan.
“I’m committed to working with China and I’m committed to working with Asia,” Obama said.
China and the US had a “special responsibility” to lead the way on sustained global growth, he added.
Wen highlighted “the differences and disagreements between us,” but said these could be resolved through trade and investment.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said mounting Asian security problems raise the importance of the US-Japan alliance, a veiled reference to tensions over Chinese sovereignty claims and maritime disputes.
“With the increasing severity of the security environment in East Asia, the importance of the Japan-US alliance is increasing,” Noda told Obama.