Barack Obama traveled to South Korea ahead of this week's G20 summit. But he had a host of other issues in his luggage as he mets Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the summit.
Obama wants to reaffirm ties with South Korea, but has other concerns
There was no shortage of issues awaiting US President Barack Obama even before the G20 summit began on Thursday in Seoul. Obama was scheduled to meet both Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak parallel to the summit.
For the latter, the most pressing agenda item was expected to be the ratification of a pending free trade deal that US and South Korean diplomats from both sides have been hashing out over the past two days. Despite a number of sticking points, including disagreement on autos and beef trade, Myung-bak and Obama agreed in a telephone conversation last week to strive for agreement before the G20.
On Thursday morning, news broke that the two sides failed to reach an agreement on a free-trade accord, but said talks would continue after the G20 summit.
Obama faces a complex meeting with Hu Jintao
Yet the meeting was also be laden with symbolic value, as Howard Loewen, researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said.
"I think they want to reaffirm the security alliance between the South Korea and the US, for the protection of South Korea," Loewen told Deutsche Welle ahead of the meeting on Wednesday. "Which is of course a message for North Korea and China."
The meeting with Jintao is likely to be more general and possibly less conclusive, however. Apart from recent disagreements over currency issues and accusations of protectionism, the Americans are consistently calling on China to take on more responsibility.
"If you're a big country, you have the power to sit at the table in the biggest forums, but you have to be willing to take on responsibility, and I think that will be a subject of conversation," says Loewen.
For its part, China is wary of Obama's diplomacy drive in Asia, particularly US attempts to assert a position in multilateral bodies. Next year the US will join the East Asia Summit, an annual forum of east Asian countries, and Loewen believes that Obama is consciously going beyond the network of bilateral relations the US maintains with likes of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand.
The US will join the East Asia Summit next year
"The US is showing more diplomatic initiatives in Southeast Asia than it did in the Bush era," said Loewen. "At the same time, the US wants to engage more in the multilateral regulation of problems. You really can't say that the US is retreating in the region - on the contrary, it is pushing ahead more."
"Of course, the Chinese are not keen on seeing the US engaging themselves more," he added. "Because they fear that the US could rival their influence, which of course it does. The Chinese are getting nervous."
Multilateral vs. bilateral
Perhaps for this reason China has made one regional issue a taboo for multilateral talks. Pascal Abb of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, told Deutsche Welle, "China has made it clear that it does not want the territorial conflicts in the South China Seas to be discussed multilaterally, but that is the central conflict in the region."
The conflict is over a number of tiny islands in the South China Seas – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia all lay claim to the islands, mainly because of the rich natural resources in the area, as well as the trade routes that run through these waters. But China's refusal to allow the matter to be discussed multilaterally effectively scuppers any chance of progress.
"I don't see how overlapping territorial conflicts can be solved bilaterally," says Abb, "Simply because no third country is likely to accept an agreement that two other states have reached."
But for Obama, the recent mid-term elections mean that what some people call his "multilateral gamble" may be under more pressure. While the new strength in the Republican party does not extend to controlling the Senate, which has more control over US foreign policy, some believe that if Obama's attempts to assert himself in Asia do not bear economic fruit, he may hand the Republicans extra ammunition in the 2012 presidential election.
But that is still a long term concern. For now, the Republicans are unlikely to gain much traction with such attacks.
"It could be that the Republicans want to assert their foreign policies now, and may make demands like that," says Loewen. "But I think it won't be that serious, because there are no multilateral commitments. It is easier to go back on multilateral agreements, so I don't think that will play a big role."
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn