President Barack Obama arrives at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on Nov. 19, 2012.
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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.
Source: Bloomberg | Daniel Ten Kate and Shamim Adam