President Barack Obama stopped short of firmly backing Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in ongoing disputes with China.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - U.S. President Barack Obama urged Asian leaders 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 by Obama at a regional summit meeting illustrate how he intends to manage 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. Also present at the summit were leaders from China, Japan, the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
"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."
That diplomatic response comes at the end of a three-day trip by Obama to old U.S. ally Thailand, new friend Myanmar and China ally Cambodia in a visit that underlines the expansion of U.S. 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.
In his first meeting with a Chinese leader since his re-election, Obama said Washington and its chief economic rival must work together to "establish clear rules of the road" for trade and investment.
"It is very important that as two of the largest economies in the world that we work to establish clear rules of the road internationally for trade and investment," Obama told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The U.S. president, however, stopped short of accusing China of violating those rules.
During the U.S. election, Obama accused his rival, Mitt Romney, of shipping U.S. jobs to China when he was a businessman. Romney, in turn, denounced Obama for being "a near-supplicant to Beijing" on trade, human rights and security.
In Asia, those trade tensions overlap with friction over Chinese sovereignty claims on disputed islands. On Monday, the Philippines accused summit host Cambodia of trying to stifle discussions on the South China Sea, where Chinese claims overlap with those of ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan.
It was the second time in five months China appeared to use its influence over Cambodia to stifle debate over the issue.
A July foreign ministers meeting of ASEAN, also hosted by Cambodia, broke down in acrimony and failed to agree on a communiqué for the first time, just weeks after a standoff between a Philippine warship and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea.
"I'm committed to working with China and I'm committed to working with Asia," Obama said. China and the United States had a "special responsibility" to lead the way on sustained global growth, he added before the meeting was closed to media.
Wen highlighted "the differences and disagreements between us" but said these could be resolved through trade and investment.
The Philippines, Australia and other parts of the region have seen a resurgence of U.S. warships, planes and personnel, since Obama began shifting foreign, economic and security policy towards Asia late last year, unnerving Beijing.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said mounting Asian security problems raise the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, a veiled reference to tensions over Chinese sovereignty claims and maritime disputes.
"With the increasing severity of the security environment in East Asia, the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance is increasing," Noda told Obama.
Beijing claims the South China Sea as its territory based on historical records. The area is thought to hold vast, untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place China, the Philippines, Vietnam and other claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar.
Sino-Japanese relations are also under strain after the Japanese government bought disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China from a private Japanese owner in September, triggering violent protests and calls for boycotts of Japanese products across China.
China says both disputes involve sea-lanes vital for its economy and prefers to address conflicts through one-on-one talks.
The Philippines sent a letter of protest on Tuesday to Cambodia after the summit host said Southeast Asian leaders agreed not to internationalize the row over the South China Sea and to confine talks to between ASEAN and China -- a claim disputed by Philippine President Benigno Aquino.
A stern-faced Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said his delegation had been shocked when a Cambodian official told a news conference that ASEAN leaders had reached a consensus at their summit on Sunday.
"Consensus means everybody. I was there, the president (Aquino) was there and we're saying we're not with it because there's no consensus," del Rosario told reporters. "How can they say there's consensus when we're saying there's no consensus?"
Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal, Stuart Grudgings, Prak Chan Thul, Manuel Mogato and James Pomfret