SINGAPORE AND WASHINGTON — President Obama and leaders of other Asia-Pacific countries reached a consensus early today that it is unlikely that negotiators can achieve a binding accord to limit climate change at an international conference next month, and should instead focus on a more limited agreement.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who will host the Copenhagen conference, flew to Singapore and laid out a two-step process at a hastily arranged breakfast meeting, according to the White House.
Under his plan, negotiators in Copenhagen would try to reach a political agreement on attacking climate change as a prelude to a later legally binding accord.
A senior Obama administration official who attended the meeting said, "There was broad consensus of support by the leaders" for Rasmussen's proposal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Danish prime minister's idea, which he has touted before, reflects a hard-eyed calculation that talks in Copenhagen will founder without an alternative approach.
"I don't think the negotiations have proceeded in such a way that any of the leaders thought it was likely that we were going to achieve a final agreement in Copenhagen, and yet [they] thought that it was important that Copenhagen be an important step forward," said Michael Froman, U.S. deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs.
Froman said Obama spoke in favor of Rasmussen's proposal.
Nineteen of the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum attended the meeting, including Chinese President Hu Jintao. China and the United States are the two largest emitters of the gases that cause global warming.
"There was a realistic assessment . . . by the leaders that it was unrealistic to expect a full, internationally legally binding agreement to be negotiated between now and when Copenhagen starts in 22 days," Froman said.
Negotiations leading to the Copenhagen conference have foundered on disputes between developed countries and those with developing economies. Developed countries want all countries to agree to binding limits on greenhouse gases. Developing countries say they need more flexibility than binding targets would give them, and they need more aid to reduce emissions.
In his remarks, Obama told his counterparts that they face two choices, Froman said. One is to declare that they had tried and failed to reach a deal, but pledge to keep trying. The second is to "see if we could reach the sort of accord that the Danish prime minister laid out that would have immediate operational impact," Froman said.
Asked whether Hu seemed open to the path suggested by Rasmussen, Froman said, "I think he supported the concept of . . . making progress in Copenhagen, the importance of that, and using Copenhagen as a step toward resolving the overall issues."
Obama and other AsiaPacific leaders are in Singapore for a series of meetings on economic issues. Obama, who is in the midst of a weeklong tour of Asia, arrived in the island nation Saturday night and is scheduled to travel today to China.
Obama is drawing on personal experience and family roots in Asia to convey during the trip that he is intent on engaging deeply in the region. But he will need to marshal all his skills in cultural diplomacy to rebuild the U.S. position in a region that Washington has neglected in recent years as China has grown in influence.
At his first stop, in Japan, Obama declared himself America's first Pacific president and warmed the audience by telling them of how as a boy he had gazed at the great bronze Buddha in Kamakura, south of Tokyo, and eaten green tea ice cream.
"It is something of a new commitment to personally engage in Southeast Asia," said Eric Heginbotham, an Asia specialist at Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank. Heginbotham, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and has lived in Japan and China, said he thinks Obama's personal connection to the region could help him.
Obama's approach is likely to be particularly welcome in Southeast Asia. Although ties with Asia overall have been relatively stable in recent years compared with the United States' frayed relations in Europe and the Middle East, perceptions run strong in Southeast Asia that the region has been neglected.
Experts say the reason wasn't so much intentional neglect by Washington as it was a focus on more pressing concerns in Iraq and other parts of the world.
The rapid rise of China has drawn other Asian countries to the Middle Kingdom through increased trade.
To Southeast Asia in particular, some analysts say, Obama wants to communicate that the U.S. will remain a Pacific power.
"Asians like balance," said Minxin Pei, director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College. "They've become uncomfortable only to the extent that China's rise is not counterbalanced by the U.S."