Obama urges restraint in tense Asian disputes

Tue Nov 20, 2012 7:46am EST
 
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By Jeff Mason and James Pomfret

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - President Barack Obama urged Asian leaders on Tuesday to rein in tensions in the South China Sea and other disputed territory, but stopped short of firmly backing allies Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in their disputes with China.

The comments illustrate the challenge facing newly re-elected Obama in managing Sino-U.S. 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," 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.

They follow a three-day trip by Obama to three strategically important Southeast Asian countries: old U.S. ally Thailand, new friend Myanmar and China ally Cambodia, in a visit that underlines Washington's expanding military and economic interests in Asia under last year's so-called "pivot" from conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Obama's attention was divided as he tried to stay on top of the unfolding crisis in Gaza. He dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the summit to the Middle East for a round of troubleshooting talks in Israel, the West Bank and Egypt.

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 United States.

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

 
U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) meets with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (R), as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) looks on, at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, November 20, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed