Obama Addresses Pressing Issues at East Asia Summit

The American president’s Asia trip appears to have yielded little of significance.

Recently reelected American president Barack Obama met this week with some of Asia’s top leaders at the seventh East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as part of a broader regional tour. The president used the opportunity to promote American economic interests and tackle vital regional issues.

Prior to the summit, Obama sought to address the ongoing maritime territorial disputes plaguing Asia, meeting with leaders from China and Japan. The focus of the talks concerned the conflict between the two countries over the uninhabited islands that the Japanese government purchased from a private owner. Known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, the islands have caused a rupture between the world’s second- and third largest economies, resulting in mounting political tension, massive anti-Japan protests and a slowdown in bilateral trade.

Japan has noted the grave security issue that the conflict poses, announcing an expansion of American-Japanese military operations. In a meeting with Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, Obama emphasized the longstanding alliance between the United States and Japan, labeling it a “cornerstone” of East Asian security. Ensuring to appeal to the other side however, he also stressed the importance of stable Sino-American political and economic relations. In a meeting with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, Obama stated that “as the two largest economies in the world, we have a special responsibility to lead the way in ensuring sustained and balanced growth.”

Nonetheless, Obama’s potential impact seems limited. China has insisted that this conflict, along with its other maritime disputes in the region, should not be discussed at the summit, stating that it would rather deal with these issues on a bilateral basis. Moreover, the Asian countries involved in these disputes have expressed an unwillingness to engage in heated discourse over disputes, given China’s powerful geopolitical position and their dependence on trade with the economic giant.

At the summit itself, President Obama promoted free economic exchange between Asian nations and the United States. This involved a discussion of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), an evolving free-trade agreement involving various countries in the region including Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. While the TPP would certainly be constructive in promoting exports and job growth in all nations involved, this is far from the main purpose of the agreement. Considering that the United States already has free-trade agreements with the more economically developed TPP countries, such as Singapore, and that the trade benefits received from the less developed countries would be relatively marginal, an ulterior motive is clearly visible.

The greatest benefit the United States would gain from the TPP is an invasion of China’s economic turf. If signed, the agreement could pose a great challenge to Chinese regional hegemony, forcing it to compete with an unprecedented level of American influence. Facing wavering levels of regional clout, China might be compelled to further open up its economy to foreign direct investment, allowing rapid expansion of the already massive Sino-American trade relationship.

Following the East Asia Summit, Obama will conclude his East Asia trip, which included a stop in Thailand, a longtime American ally, and a historic visit to the formerly isolated and newly developing nation of Burma. The impact of his visit is yet to be seen.

This article by Daniel Fleishman originally appeared at, November 21, 2012.