SHANGHAI — President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao held an unscheduled meeting Saturday morning on the sidelines of a summit of Asian leaders on the Indonesian island of Bali, and the two briefly discussed the territorial dispute in the South China Sea that has unnerved some of China’s neighbors.
White House national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon told reporters afterward that while the United States took no position on the competing territorial claims to the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, it did have “an interest in the freedom of navigation, the free flow of commerce, the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
“We don’t take sides in the claims,” Donilon said. “But we do, as a global maritime power, have an interest in seeing these principles applied broadly.”
Donilon said the short meeting between Obama and Wen focused primarily on economics, and specifically the steps China could take, including continuing to allow its currency to appreciate, that could help the global economic recovery.
He said Wen requested the unplanned meeting so that the two leaders could continue a conversation begun Friday night at dinner.
The Chinese side Saturday was slow in releasing any details of the Obama-Wen meetings.
The surprise session came at the end of Obama’s nine-day Asia trip, which began with a stop in Hawaii and took him to Australia’s northern coast and to the capital, Canberra, where he announced plans for a new permanent American military basing arrangement in the Pacific.
The trip comes at a sensitive time for Obama back home, with a congressionally mandated “supercommittee” struggling to meet a Wednesday deadline to carve $1.2 trillion in savings from the U.S. debt. Throughout the trip, Obama stressed that his mission was to find new markets in Asia for American products and link the U.S. recovery to this region’s dynamic growth.
But a strong subtext of the administration’s announced pivot to Asia has been shoring up long-standing alliances and reassuring traditional allies that the United States would help counter a newly assertive China, which is increasing its military spending and pressing its territorial claims in the region.
The new administration focus on Asia has unnerved China, with some analysts, and the state-run media, accusing the United States of trying to impose its dominance on the region as it winds down the decade-long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. An editorial Saturday by Xinhua, the state news agency, said the U.S. “pivot” has stirred strong suspicions among countries in the region.
‘What they need right now is a reliable partner, not a country that yearns for leadership and intends to act as an arbitrator,” said Xinhua, whose editorials often reflect the views of the ruling Communist Party. “If the United States sticks to its Cold War mentality and continues to engage with Asian nations in a self-assertive way, it is doomed to incur repulsion in the region.”
Donilon said the administration has stressed to Beijing that although the United States would continue to support its allies and contribute to regional stability, that did not mean it would seek confrontation with China or try to block China’s rise.
“We’ve also been quite direct with the Chinese about our strategy here, and I think they understand and appreciate that we are going to meet our obligations here, that we are going to meet our commitments to partners and allies,” Donilon said.
He said America’s partners “want to know that the United States is going to play the role it’s played with respect to security and reassurances and balancing and stability here. But they also expect that the United States would engage . . . in a productive and constructive relationship with the Chinese.”
Linking the economic talks with China to security issues in the South China Sea, Donilon said the overall theme of the U.S. discussions was getting China to recognize and abide by international “rules and norms.”
“We have a very complicated and quite substantial relationship with China across the board,” Donilon said.