President Obama ended his three-day Asia trip Tuesday after a meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in which tensions between the two nations simmered under the surface.
Keenly focused on his mission of pivoting U.S. attention to Asia and its economic-growth opportunities, Mr. Obama met with Mr. Wen, the first top-level meeting between the two countries since the presidential election.
The bilateral meeting took place at a summit of South Asian nations in Cambodia, the third and final stop on Mr. Obama’s post-election Asian tour. On Sunday and Monday, Mr. Obama visited Thailand and Myanmar.
Reporters traveling with the president shouted questions about the U.S. role in the bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea, but Mr. Obama left them unanswered, focusing his public remarks instead on trade.
He told Mr. Wen that China and the U.S. should “work to establish clear rules of the road internationally for trade investment, which can increase prosperity and global growth.”
Mr. Wen responded by pledging to cooperate in financial and economic matters, touching on the intensifying trade disputes between the U.S. and China.
“We will enhance our business cooperation and engage in large-scale cooperation in economy and finance to use it as a means to tackle the difficulties we have and resolve the differences and disagreements between us,” he said during a news conference with reporters.
During the 2012 campaign, Mr. Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney both took a strong stand against China and the trade and currency disparities between it and the United States.
But the deep divisions between the two countries were tamped down during the summit.
Mr. Wen congratulated Mr. Obama on his re-election and said China’s new leader Xi Jinping sent his greetings.
Mr. Xi was selected as head of the Chinese Communist Party at last week’s party congress and will officially succeed President Hu Jintao in March.
During Tuesday’s conference, Mr. Obama also met one-on-one with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and participated in group discussions with several other leaders.
Many of those leaders are upset about China’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, which is thought to contain rich oil and gas deposits, and want the U.S. to side on their behalf and push back against China. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have asserted rival claims.
While Mr. Obama ignored shouted questions about the dispute during his public remarks at the ASEAN summit, his deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president that the U.S. wants the nations to find a process to lower the tensions.
“There’s no reason to risk any potential escalation, particularly when you have two of the world’s largest economies — China and Japan — associated with these disputes,” he said.