Nov. 20 (Bloomberg) — U.S. President Barack Obama meets
with leaders from China and Japan today as Asian nations
struggle to resolve territorial disputes that threaten to
disrupt trade flows.
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 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
“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.”
The failure to ease tensions over sea claims risks
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.
Obama will meet separately today with Chinese Premier Wen
Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda before
attending 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.
‘Calm and Peaceful’
“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., 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 disputed Cambodia’s
assertion that the bloc agreed to limit discussion of maritime claims in the South China Sea at international forums.
“There were several views expressed yesterday on Asean
unity which we did not realize would be translated into an Asean consensus,” President Benigno Aquino told fellow Asean leaders during a meeting yesterday, according to a government statement. “For the record, this was not our understanding. The Asean
route is not the only route for us. As a sovereign state, it is our right to defend our national interests.”
A day earlier, Kao Kim Hourn, a Cambodian foreign ministry
official, told reporters that Asean leaders agreed to confine discussions on a set of rules for operating in the South China Sea to the bloc’s meetings with China. Cambodia hung banners hailing the country’s close ties with China on a wall outside the summit venue.
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., Talisman Energy Inc. and Forum Energy Plc, reject China’s map of the sea as a basis for joint development of oil and gas.
The U.S. supports Southeast Asia’s efforts to resolve sea
disputes with China to bring stability to the region, Asean’s Surin told reporters after Obama met with the bloc’s leaders.
“The U.S. would like to support Asean working on this
issue and would like to be helpful in any way,” Surin said.
“Because rule of law and transparency in terms of engagement would be beneficial to all parties.”
To contact the reporters on this story:
Daniel Ten Kate in Phnom Penh at
Shamim Adam in Phnom Penh at
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Peter Hirschberg at
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