November 21, 2011

This Weekend’s News: Recapping the East Asia Summit

President Obama returned stateside on Sunday after a
nine-day trip across the Asia Pacific, ending with a stop at the East Asia
Summit in Bali over the weekend. The president’s visit to the annual summit was
the first time that an American president attended the forum, in what seems
like a demonstration of the growing U.S. commit to pivot from the Middle East
to Asia.

The South China Sea was perhaps the foremost security
concern shared by the leaders attending the summit. Despite China’s preemptive announcement
last week that it would not debate the South China Sea at the multilateral East
Asia Summit
– preferring bilateral negotiations on this issue instead–
President Obama and other regional leaders confronted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo
about its controversial territorial claim to nearly the entire South China Sea.
According to The New York Times,
President Obama said that, “while
we are not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, and while we do not take
sides, we have a powerful stake in maritime security in general, and in the
resolution of the South China Sea issue specifically — as a resident Pacific power,
as a maritime nation, as a trading nation and as a guarantor of security in the
Asia Pacific region

President Obama and Premier Wen met on Saturday to discuss
the issue, according to news reports. The
New York Times
reported that:

Mr. Wen acknowledged that he did
not want to discuss the issue at the summit, but added that it would be
“impolite” not to answer the concerns of his country’s neighbors, according to
Xinhua [the official Chinese government news service]. He
then defended China’s stance on the sea, according to the news service and an
Obama administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of

Since their meeting on Saturday,
experts have been busy analyzing what was said and was not said between the two
leaders. “The
fact that Mr. Wen spoke at all, however, represented a tactical defeat in a
struggle that has become a focal point in the larger tug-of-war with the United
States over influence in the region
,” The
New York Times
reported. An American official also explained to The New York Times that what was
interesting “was
not what Mr. Wen said, but what he did not. For instance, he did not repeat the
notion that the disputes should be resolved bilaterally.
But a report in
Xinhua said the prime minister 'reaffirmed' China’s position, perhaps indicating
that his omission did not mean any real change in thinking.”

Other leaders confronted China on its claim to the South
China Sea, as well. “The
first to speak up, the [American] administration official said, were the
leaders of Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam — among whom tensions with
China run highest
— followed by representatives of Malaysia, Thailand,
Australia, India, Russia and Indonesia, the summit host,” according to The New York Times.

The Philippines in particular was vocal on the South China
Sea, given its territorial disputes with China over their contested claims to
the Spratly Islands, including the potentially oil-rich Reed Bank. “The
Philippines is getting impatient, Mr. del Rosario [Albert del Rosario,
Secretary of the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs] said. It needs
unfettered ability to explore the waters surrounding its islands for natural
resources like oil and gas
,” The Wall
Street Journal
reported. “‘China can afford to wait 100 years,’ [Mr. Del
Rosario] said. ‘But we need what we are trying to explore for in the South
China Sea for our economic development sooner rather than later.’”

The Philippines has proposed its own plan for cooperation in
and around the contested waters, calling for “a
Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation that would have countries
clearly define their claims in the sea and then cooperate in and share the
areas where they have no overlapping claims, leaving a reckoning on the
disputed areas till later
,” The Wall
Street Journal
reported. Unfortunately, “President
Aquino failed to drum up much support for the proposal during the Asean and
East Asia summit meetings

For his part, President Obama’s visit signaled to America’s
East Asian partners that the United States is committed to regional stability. In
his visit to Australia, the president announced a permanent military presence
in Darwin, beginning with a deployment of 250 marines with several thousand
more to follow shortly after. Meanwhile, the president said he would send U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma for a two-day visit in December, a
significant step to bolster relations with a country that for years has been
viewed as a staunch supporter of China. The
Washington Post
probably best summed up the president’s trip on Sunday: “Obama
showed that he was willing to push hard and take risks as he sought to place
the United States at the forefront in helping shape the Asia-Pacific region in
the 21st century

This Week’s Events

It’s a short week, but here’s what is on our radar.

On Tuesday at noon, head to Resources for the Future for an
event on Tipping Points and Ambiguity in the Economics of Climate