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U.S. takes a tougher tone with China

South Korean naval ships follow the USS George Washington during joint military drills in the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan.
South Korean naval ships follow the USS George Washington during joint military drills in the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan. (Lee Jung-hoon/associated Press)
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"After the meeting, about a dozen Asian delegates expressed their congratulations to the Chinese side," the statement said, despite what many in the meeting thought were clear indications that most of the participants supported the U.S. view.

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The Obama administration has also pushed back on statements, particularly from China's People's Liberation Army, over planned military exercises in the Yellow Sea -- thousands of miles to the north.

The United States and South Korea have been planning the exercises after the March 26 sinking of a South Korean warship that left 46 sailors dead. An international investigation of the incident pointed to North Korea as responsible for the attack.

But then China inserted itself into the debate, claiming that any military exercise in the Yellow Sea would be seen as threatening to Beijing -- something that struck U.S. officials as unnecessarily complicating what was supposed to be a simple message of U.S.-South Korean solidarity in the face of an attack by Pyongyang.

On July 3, Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the deputy chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, told the Phoenix TV channel that "as far as these exercises are conducted . . . in the close proximity to our territorial waters, we strongly protest." Yet in November, the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier, had been in the Yellow Sea without eliciting criticism from China.

In an attempt to cool China's ire, the administration conducted its first exercise this week with the USS George Washington in the Sea of Japan (also known to Koreans as the East Sea) farther from China's coast. But partly because China made an issue of it, a second exercise is also being planned -- in the Yellow Sea. U.S. officials also predicted that the George Washington will soon be back in the region -- this time in the Yellow Sea.

Finally, the Obama administration continues to push China over Iran. The United States won Beijing's support for enhanced U.N. sanctions on Iran in June after Tehran's refusal to halt its program to enrich uranium. As part of the deal, the sanctions were kept relatively weak, and China, which has substantial investments in Iran's energy sector and is Iran's third-largest oil customer, was exempted from many of them.

But now U.S. officials are concerned that as Western countries enact additional sanctions on Iran -- the United States, Canada and the European Union have all slapped on more in recent weeks -- Chinese state-owned energy firms will step in as Western and Japanese investments dry up, negating any possible effect of the measures.

"We're not done on Iran," said the senior administration official. "We are looking for maximum Chinese restraint."


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