Wen Jiabao

Wen Jiabao will try to steer East Asia Summit away from territorial disputes

In his last stab at diplomacy, outgoing premier will try to keep focus on trade - not territorial rows - at East Asia Summit with US president

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 3:29am

Premier Wen Jiabao will be pushing economic co-operation as he meets counterparts in his last regional summit today - despite attempts to drive South China Sea issues back onto the agenda.

Wen and senior Foreign Ministry officials have been repeatedly stressing the importance of economic issues over "obstacles" such as territorial disputes in the run-up to the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.

Wen is also expected to hold his last meeting with US President Barack Obama on the fringes of the summit. Both men are expected to outline their own visions of economic co-operation to the gathering of 18 leaders from the wider region.

But Chinese officials confirmed last night that a side meeting between Wen and his Japanese counterpart Yoshihiko Noda was now "highly unlikely".

En-route to Phnom Penh, Wen expressed confidence that the Chinese economy had stabilised and would continue to drive the regional and world economy.

"While the recovery of the world economy is slowing down and the East Asian economy is under growing downward pressure, the only correct option is for China and neighbouring countries to strengthen co-ordination and co-operation through the difficult times," Wen was quoted by Xinhua as saying.

Specifically, Wen will be backing an Asean attempt to bring East Asian trade deals under an umbrella agreement. It will link the 10 nations of Southeast Asia with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand - and looms as a rival to the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership pushed by Obama.

However, aligning the contrasting trading regimes of China and Japan remains a sticking point in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations effort.

Du Jifeng, a Southeast Asian specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Wen would push for more trade agreements with Asean nations, and try to prevent a united front from the bloc against Beijing.

"China is feeling that a more unified Asean may put China at a disadvantage," Du said. "But there is not much Wen can do now, as he is stepping down."

Du said Wen would likely relay a message that the new Obama administration should focus on building positive Sino-US ties, but would refrain from harsh criticism of the US.

Professor Shi Yinhong, a US affairs expert at Renmin University, said Wen would reiterate China's stance that territorial disputes should be resolved only by countries directly involved.

Analysts also said Wen would not meet with Noda because of the political situation in Japan, which is holding an election next month.

Wen met the 10 Asean leaders and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak yesterday. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that despite South China Sea issues being raised, Asean and China agreed closer economic co-operation was more pressing.

The US side is also emphasising economics - both for domestic and regional audiences.

While much of the focus of recent US diplomacy has been linked to the strategic challenge of China's rise, Obama's second term will begin with a renewed focus on economic links to East Asia. US diplomats around the region will also be forcefully supporting the regional activities of big US firms as part of the effort.

"To maintain our strategic leadership in the region, the US is strengthening our economic leadership as well," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.

Southeast Asia has long been a major draw for US foreign investment, and continues to outstrip China as an investment destination.

The fledgling East Asia Summit - which the US joined only two years ago - comprises the 10 countries of Southeast Asia as well as China, the US, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.