Obama Meets China, Japan Leaders as Sea Spats Threaten Trade
By Daniel Ten Kate and Margaret Talev - Nov 19, 2012 11:26 PM CT
President Barack Obama met with leaders from China and Japan today as Asian countries struggle to resolve territorial disputes in sea lanes vital to world trade that threaten to disrupt economic ties.
Obama called the U.S.-Japan alliance the “cornerstone” of regional security in a meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who emphasized the importance of relations given the “increasing severity” of the security environment in Asia. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said he wanted his meeting with Obama to send a “positive message to the world.”
“It’s important that our two countries cooperate to build a more secure, prosperous future” for the Asia-Pacific region and the world, Obama told reporters as he began the meeting with Wen in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “As the two largest economies in the world we have a special responsibility to lead the way in ensuring sustained and balanced growth.”
Tensions over China’s territorial claims risk disrupting commercial ties between Asia’s biggest economies as Europe’s sovereign debt crisis and the U.S. fiscal cliff threaten global growth. Japan this month said it would bolster military ties with the U.S. after its purchase of islands claimed by China rattled a $340 billion trade relationship.
Southeast Asian nations yesterday split over handling maritime conflicts with China, reflecting divisions that surfaced in a July meeting when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations failed to release a communique for the first time ever. Obama, on a three-day trip to the region, will head back to the U.S. after the meetings today.
“We are not going to allow the issue to cloud or to affect other pursuits that we are doing here,” Surin Pitsuwan, Asean’s secretary-general, told reporters today, referring to the island disputes. “But of course any other member states who would like to carry this issue in its own way, to pursue its own interests, those states have the right to do so.”
After the meetings with Wen and Noda, Obama will attend the East Asia Summit, which also includes leaders from Asean, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Obama last year called the event the “premier” arena to discuss maritime security concerns, a subject China has sought to keep out of international summits.
‘Sign of Weakness’
“Anything that Obama says about the South China Sea will be interpreted by Beijing as an interference, as American pressure on China,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “If Obama doesn’t mention it, it will be a sign of weakness on the part of the U.S.”
Noda yesterday told Asean leaders he would seek to resolve differences with China in a “calm and peaceful manner,” according to a government statement, after the countries sparred over the islands at a summit of European and Asian leaders in Laos earlier this month. Noda will only raise the island dispute at today’s meetings if China brings it up, Hikariko Ono, a spokeswoman for the Japanese prime minister’s office, said by phone.
China has demanded that Japan withdraw from its September purchase of the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Anti-Japan protests have reduced China sales at Toyota Motor Corp. (7203), Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co.
Wen yesterday urged Asean members to avoid discussing island disputes because China prefers to deal with individual claimants directly, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters. China proposed setting up a group of experts to find ways to resolve sea tensions, he said.
“China and Asean countries share a lot of things in common, particularly in making joint efforts to keep the good momentum of economic growth in this region,” Qin said. “All parties, including China, we have felt the pressures from the slowdown in the world economy.”
Southeast Asia is growing more reliant on trade with China, which is a gateway for shipments to advanced economies, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The euro-area economy succumbed to a recession for the second time in four years, as governments imposed tougher budget cuts and leaders struggled to contain the debt turmoil.
Asean leaders are set to start talks today on a regional trade agreement with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, an area with more than 3 billion people representing about a quarter of the world economy, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. China has been Asean’s largest trading partner since 2009.
China, Japan and South Korea trade ministers will also meet today in Cambodia to announce the start of negotiations, according to an e-mailed statement from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Asean’s differences over handling territorial disputes emerged yesterday after the Philippines, a U.S. ally, disputed Cambodia’s assertion that the bloc agreed to limit discussion of maritime claims in the South China Sea at international forums. Cambodia hung banners hailing the country’s close ties with China on a wall outside the summit venue.
“The Philippines looks to China to set the example of wise and peace-seeking leadership,” President Benigno Aquino told reporters last night. “Our region is very diverse and its harmony can easily be disrupted by sheer political, military, or economic might.”
China has resisted talks with Asean on a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, where it has deployed maritime surveillance ships to assert its territorial claims. The Philippines and Vietnam, which have awarded exploration contracts to Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), Talisman Energy Inc. (TLM) and Forum Energy Plc (FEP), reject China’s map of the sea as a basis for joint development of oil and gas.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is also attending the meetings, called for the South China Sea disputes to be resolved according to international law.
“We are talking about an area of the world that our shipping needs to go through to take our goods to the world,” she told reporters today. “This is a very heavily used trade route for Australia and consequently what happens there in terms of maritime security is important to us.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Phnom Penh at email@example.com; Margaret Talev in Phnom Penh at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at email@example.com