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U.S. takes a tougher tone with China

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; A01

The Obama administration has adopted a tougher tone with China in recent weeks as part of a diplomatic balancing act in which the United States welcomes China's rise in some areas but also confronts Beijing when it butts up against American interests.

Faced with a Chinese government increasingly intent on testing U.S. strength and capabilities, the United States unveiled a new policy that rejected China's claims to sovereignty over the whole South China Sea. It rebuffed Chinese demands that the U.S. military end its longtime policy of conducting military exercises in the Yellow Sea. And it is putting new pressure on Beijing not to increase its energy investments in Iran as Western firms leave.

The U.S. maneuvers have prompted a backlash among Chinese officialdom and its state-run press, which has accused the United States of trying to contain China. Yang Jiechi, the minister of foreign affairs, issued a highly unusual statement Monday charging that the United States was ganging up with other countries against China. One prominent academic, Shen Dingli of Fudan University, compared the planned U.S. exercises in international waters of the Yellow Sea to the 1962 Russian deployment of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba.

U.S. officials explained the moves as part of a broader strategy to acknowledge China's emergence as a world power but to also lay down markers when China's behavior infringes on U.S. interests. So at the same time that the administration has welcomed China into the Group of 20 major economies, held the biggest meeting ever between U.S. and Chinese officials, and backed China's push to increase its influence in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, it is also seeking to limit what it thinks are China's expansionist impulses. To this end, the Obama administration has also intensified its diplomacy and outreach to other Asian and Oceanic nations, ending a 12-year ban on ties with Indonesia's special forces and strengthening its alliances from Tokyo and Seoul to Canberra, Australia.

The strategy has won rare acclaim in Washington among the generally fractious community of China watchers. James Mulvenon, director of Defense Group Inc.'s Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, called it "a masterful piece of diplomacy" in dealing with China, which, he said, "continues to be this paradoxical combination of bluster, swagger and intense insecurity and caution."

The decision to confront China on the South China Sea dates back several months, after administration officials noticed that the sea -- an international waterway through which more than 50 percent of the world's merchant fleet tonnage passes each year -- had crept into the standard diplomatic pitter-patter about China's "core interests." In March, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai told two senior U.S. officials that China now views its claims to the 1.3 million-square-mile sea on par with its claims to Tibet and Taiwan, an island that China says belongs to Beijing.

In addition, Southeast Asian nations had informed the United States that they, too, were uncomfortable with China's pressure on countries and companies interested in exploring for gas and other minerals in the sea. China had warned Exxon Mobil and BP to stop explorations in offshore areas near Vietnam. It had also begun routinely arresting or harassing fishing vessels from other countries, according to sources from the region.

The U.S. response was unveiled July 23 in Hanoi when 12 nations -- Vietnam as the first and the United States as the last -- raised the issue of the South China Sea at an annual security forum of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Calling freedom of navigation on the sea a U.S. "national interest," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered to facilitate moves to create a code of conduct in the region. And then she said: "Legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features."

Translated, it meant that China's claims to the whole sea were "invalid," said a senior administration official, because it doesn't have any people living on the scores of rocks and atolls that it says belong to China.

Foreign Minister Yang reacted by leaving the meeting for an hour. When he returned, he gave a rambling 30-minute response in which he accused the United States of plotting against China on this issue, seemed to poke fun at Vietnam's socialist credentials and apparently threatened Singapore, according to U.S. and Asian officials in the room.

"China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact," he said, staring directly at Singapore's foreign minister, George Yeo, according to several participants at the meeting.

On Monday, Yang issued a statement on the Foreign Ministry's Web site saying that there was no need to internationalize the issue, that China was still intent on solving all of the disputes bilaterally and that China's view represented the interests of "fellow Asians."

"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.

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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