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Territorial row overshadows Obama's Cambodia visit

President Barack Obama (L) with Cambodian PM Hun Sen (C) and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the ASEAN/ East Asian Summit.

Story highlights

  • Obama in Cambodia for regional summit on last leg of Asia trip
  • Meets with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and other leaders
  • Bitter maritime dispute overshadows discussions

U.S. President Barack Obama met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Tuesday, the first top-level meeting between the two countries since the presidential election and a power transition in China.

They met at the East Asia Summit in Cambodia, the third leg in Obama's Asian tour, which hopes to foster deeper political and economic ties in the region.

Read: Obama praises Suu Kyi

Obama was keen to put the focus on trade issues, and ignored questions on a bitter maritime dispute that overshadowed discussions on the first day of the summit on Monday.

He told Wen that China and the U.S. should "work to establish clear rules of the road internationally for trade and investment which can increase prosperity and global growth."

In return, Wen pledged to cooperate in financial and economic matters "to tackle the difficulties we have and resolve the differences and disagreements between us."

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Both Obama and Governor Mitt Romney talked tough on China during the presidential campaign, particularly on trade and currency disputes, although Obama was more measured in his criticism.

Wen congratulated Obama on his re-election and sent greetings from China's new leader Xi Jinping.

Read: Xi becomes China's new Communist Party leader

Xi will officially succeed President Hu Jintao in March after he was selected as head of the Chinese Communist Party at last week's party congress.

Obama also met with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and held discussions with leaders from ASEAN, a grouping of 10 southeast Asian nations.

During the summit, ASEAN leaders clashed publicly about how to handle a bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea and what role the U.S. should play in resolving it.

China claims sovereignty over most of the waters, which are thought to contain oil and gas deposits, but Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have made rival territorial claims.

Read: Does Norway hold key to solving South China Sea dispute?

Cambodia's statement on Sunday that ASEAN's 10 leaders had agreed not to "internationalize" the South China Sea dispute by limiting the body to direct negotiations with China provoked an an angry rebuke by the Philippines, which said there was no consensus.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino said he wanted the U.S. to get involved in discussions, according to the Philippines Daily Inquirer.

"Our region is very diverse and its harmony can easily be disrupted by sheer political, military, or economic might. Imbalance, as we know, may lead to instability," he said.

"While we are all aware that the U.S. does not take sides in disputes, they do have a strategic stake in the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea."

Alan Dupont, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said that the while U.S. was happy to push China to the table, it was unlikely to step directly into trying to resolve the issue.

"The U.S. is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute but it does have an interest in maintaining freedom of navigation," he said.

Read: Why ASEAN will stay weak

Obama and ASEAN leaders agreed to support the drafting of a regional code of conduct to manage disputes in the sea.

China repeated its long-held position that the disputes should resolved through "consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned."

Dupont said that China had conceded some ground by agreeing to discuss the dispute with ASEAN.

"But it made it clear it will do so in discussions with the ASEAN countries and not involve other parties, specifically read in brackets the United States," he said.

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