At an economic summit in China, President Barack Obama is turning attention to the Islamic State group, consulting with the leaders of Turkey and Britain, important allies with their own challenges at home.
Obama has not met with Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, since a coup nearly toppled Erdogan’s government in July. The attempted overthrow has led to accusations of US involvement, and those tensions have been aggravated by growing clashes between Turkish forces and US-backed Syrian Kurds.
Also on Obama’s schedule Sunday was a first meeting with Theresa May, the new British prime minister who is managing her country’s exit from the European Union after the leave side won a referendum.
Obama arrived Saturday in Hangzhou, an eastern lakeside city, for the economic summit. On probably his final visit to Asia as president, he was quick to underscore what he views as a success in an otherwise rocky relationship with his Chinese hosts.
Obama and President Xi Jinping announced they had committed their nations to a landmark climate deal brokered last year in Paris. The two, representing the world’s two biggest carbon dioxide emitters, formally submitted documents marking their commitment. The move puts the deal closer to taking effect, potentially by year’s end.
Still, the announcement only papered over long-standing tensions over cybersecurity, maritime disputes and human rights. The presidents signaled that those subjects were at the heart of private discussions lasting late into the night.
Differences over open government and media freedoms were evident from the moment Air Force One landed in Hangzhou.
As Obama was greeted on a red carpet, a Chinese official yelled at White House officials and traveling journalists to get back.
“This is our country! This is our airport!” the official shouted.
Even Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice and her deputy, Ben Rhodes, were briefly caught up as the official tried to keep them away, too.
Chinese officials sparred with their American counterparts into the evening, with quarrels up to the last minute about how many officials and journalists would be allowed to witness meetings.
The summit’s second day promised to highlight another frustrating relationship for the American leader.
The coup attempt in Turkey has accelerated the deterioration in the relationship between Turkey and the United States. The Obama administration has expressed concerns about Erdogan’s crackdown on the press and, in the weeks since the coup, mass firings of teachers, military personnel and others accused of associating with the opposition.
The US is worried about Turkey’s recent operations across its border into Syria. The Pentagon has backed the incursions, but said they should only be aimed at IS fighters. Turkey has used the operations to push back Syrian Kurds it accuses of seeking to claim more territory.
For the US, the dispute is a reminder of its increasing entanglement in the long-standing local rivalries and conflicts exposed by Syria’s civil war.
Since the failed coup, the US has been alarmed by Turkey’s diplomatic flirtations with Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s patron, and apparent softening of its tone about the need for Assad to be excluded from a political transition. At the same time, the US continues to work toward an agreement with Russia to cooperate more closely in the fight against IS in Syria.
Obama told CNN in an interview to be broadcast Sunday that Turkey is an important NATO ally and cooperation on security issues hasn’t been affected.
“What we want to do is indicate to them the degree to which we support the Turkish people,” he said. “But like any good friend, we want to give them honest feedback if we think that the steps they’re taking are going to be contrary to their long-term interests and our partnership.”
Obama’s talks with May were expected to include an update on the IS campaign, and May’s strategy for managing the departure from the EU. Obama has said Britain’s decision to leave the EU would not harm the “special relationship” between the two countries. But he has warned Britain to be prepared for economic ramifications.