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Obama’s Journey to Tougher Tack on a Rising China

President Barack Obama
CNBC
President Barack Obama

President Obama’s patience with China had been fraying for months, and by November 2010 he was fed up. Meeting with President Hu Jintao in Seoul, South Korea, Mr. Obama warned that if China did not do more to curb North Korea’s bellicose behavior, he would have to take steps to shield the United States from the threat of a nuclear missile attack from the North.

For the first time in a half dozen stilted encounters, Mr. Obama seemed to get through to the bland, tightly scripted Chinese leader. Mr. Hu dropped his talking points and asked Mr. Obama to clarify what he meant, according to two people who were in the room. The president’s answer included a clear hint that the United States would move warships to the seas off China, a step sure to antagonize the increasingly nationalistic Chinese.

“Obama pulled back the veil,” said Jeffrey A. Bader, the president’s chief adviser on China at the time, who was one of those in the room. He added that Mr. Obama’s warning prodded the Chinese president to send a senior diplomat to lean on North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il.

The tense exchange, Mr. Bader and other officials said, was a turning point in the president’s complex relationship with China, a journey that began with hope and accommodation but fell into disillusionment after Beijing started flexing its muscles on trade and military questions and proved to be a truculent partner on a variety of global issues.

As Mr. Obama runs for re-election, his tougher line toward Beijing is showing itself on several fronts. The White House has filed two major cases in the past three months against China at the World Trade Organization, both of which Mr. Obama promoted to autoworkers in the Rust Belt. On the same day as the latest trade action, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced plans in Tokyo to help Japan deploy a new missile-defense system, which has aroused suspicion in Beijing.

With Mitt Romneycharging that Mr. Obama has not stood up enough to Chinese leaders, China has suddenly become a focal point in the presidential campaign, one that encompasses both security and economic concerns and puts to the test the president’s management of a crucial, and occasionally combustible, relationship.

Mr. Obama’s blunt warning in Seoul presaged what may end up as the most consequential foreign policy initiative of his presidency: the shift of American focus from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the Pacific Rim, where the United States has shored up alliances with Japan and South Korea, opened the door to Myanmar, and sent Marines to Australia. While the new focus has rattled allies in Europe, the emergence of a counterweight to a rising China has been greeted with enthusiasm in Asia.

“Time and time again, I had leaders — I mean, I’m talking about the highest leaders— essentially say: ‘Thank goodness. Thank you. I’m so pleased you’re here. We were worried about America,’” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who played a significant role in shaping the president’s approach to China, said in an interview.

Mr. Obama’s turn to Asia was not precisely what he had in mind when he entered office. The shift emerged in fits and starts, after a first year in which critics, including the president’s aides, concluded that the United States had been too soft on China. In interviews, a dozen current and former administration officials described a White House that struggled to find the right tone with Beijing.

From his decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama in 2009 to his tightly constrained first trip to China, the president accommodated Chinese leaders in the hopes that the moves would translate into good will on issues like climate change or Iran’s nuclear program.

They did not. China spurned the United States on climate change standards, dragged its feet on efforts to pressure Iran and began bullying its neighbors over territorial claims in the South China Sea. That last development, in particular, persuaded the administration that the time for accommodation had come to an end.

“I certainly think we tested the limit of how far you can get with China through positive engagement,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “We needed to toughen our line in Year 2, and we did that.”

At the center of the internal debate on China was a president, who despite being born in Hawaii and spending childhood years in Indonesia, is less beguiled by China’s history and culture than many of his predecessors were, aides said. Once in office, they said, Mr. Obama came to view China primarily through an economic prism. He is angry at what he sees as Beijing’s refusal to play by the rules in trade, and frustrated by the United States’ lack of leverage to do anything about it.

In meetings, Mr. Obama liked to tease two of his advisers, Mr. Bader and Lawrence H. Summers, who had helped negotiate China’s entry into the World Trade Organization during the administration of Bill Clinton. “Did you guys give away too much?” he asked them, according to a senior aide, who described it as “a running joke.”

To some extent, Mr. Obama’s learning curve on China parallels his early outreach to Iran: an initial hope that old adversaries could put aside their differences, followed by a jolting recognition of reality and the ultimate adoption of a realpolitik approach. The difference, officials argue, is that in this case the tougher line has led not to stalemate but to a constructive give-and-take with a country bound to rub up against the United States.

“Despite it all, China has been an increasingly responsible actor on Iran,” said James B. Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state who made a number of trips to Beijing to air American concerns. “Despite some wobbles, they’ve played a positive role in constraining North Korea at times of crisis.”

The president’s Asia agenda, however, raises many questions. With deep cuts in the military budget looming, critics question whether the United States has the money to back up its words. A Pentagon preoccupied by Afghanistan and Iraq has done little planning to shift troops or ships — so little, in fact, that a Navy commander was called to the White House for his first meeting after Mr. Obama had already laid out the broader strategy.

America’s eastward shift has left the Chinese deeply suspicious of American motives, with some analysts in China arguing that the United States is trying to encircle the country. For all the talk of give-and-take, the Chinese rebuffed Mrs. Clinton during her recent visit to Beijing when she raised the disputes over the South China Sea.

“The Chinese feel a bit whiplashed,” said Michael J. Green, an Asia policy maker in the administration of George W. Bush who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The hope and change of the first year, followed by the sharp-edged push-back of the second year, all of this, to the Chinese, looks like gross inconsistency and unpredictability.”

The President’s Asia

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It is little surprise that Mr. Obama would look east. The president’s Asia, however, lies not on the wind-swept ramparts of the Great Wall of China but in the tropical swelter of Singapore and Indonesia. He identifies more with the languid rhythms of Jakarta, aides say, than with the crackling energy of Shanghai.

An adviser recalled a breakfast at a summit meeting in Toronto in 2010 that Mr. Obama shared with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, which was so relaxed and serene that afterward the president’s hyperactive chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, told him, “Now I see what your Asianness is about.”

Despite his preferences, Mr. Obama was determined not to antagonize China when he ran for president in 2008. Unlike Mr. Clinton, who referred to China’s leaders as the “butchers of Beijing” in 1992, Mr. Obama said little about China, and his thin record on foreign policy left few clues for the Chinese to size him up.

“We tried to introduce him as the first Asia-Pacific president,” saidJon M. Huntsman Jr., who was ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011, before resigning to run for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Huntsman said that in exchanges with Chinese officials, Mr. Obama was highly effective. “But the Chinese were perplexed by President Obama,” he said. “Where does he come from? What does he think? He remained a bit of a cipher.”

With the president focused on priorities like Afghanistan and Iran in the early days of his administration, other officials rushed to stake their claim to China. Thomas E. Donilon, who later became national security adviser, spoke of a “rebalancing” to Asia from the Middle East. Mrs. Clinton, eager to reassert the State Department’s role on China, made her first trip there.

Before landing in Beijing, however, Mrs. Clinton appeared to sideline the issue of human rights, saying she did not see the value of lodging pro forma protests with the Chinese in return for predictable responses (she quickly changed course.)

Then, a few months later, Mr. Obama declined to meet with the Dalai Lama when he visited the United States. The sticking point was not the meeting but the timing — in October 2009, a month before Mr. Obama was to make his first trip as president to Beijing. Officials involved in the decision now express regret for not going ahead with the meeting.

“We hadn’t reckoned with the way people in Washington set up litmus tests,” Mr. Bader said. “Maybe we should have.”

The optics did not improve on Mr. Obama’s trip, which the Chinese stage-managed, allowing no questions after a joint news conference with Mr. Hu. White House officials said the trip was more successful than the news coverage suggested, but they do not dispute that the lasting impression was of a fast-rising power — the holder of $1 trillion in American debt —pushing back on a beleaguered United States.

Not all of Mr. Obama’s first year was conciliatory. In September 2009, he imposed a tariff on China for dumping tires into the American market. The administration also kept pressure on Beijing to revalue its currency, though it did not label China a currency manipulator. This showed what former aides described as the “Chicago pol” side of Mr. Obama, who views China as a threat to American jobs.

An aide recalled briefing the president in early 2011 before a state visit by Mr. Hu on an array of diplomatic and human rights issues. Impatiently, Mr. Obama said, “The only thing people care about is the economic issues.”

Drawing a Line

For a president with Southeast Asian sympathies, however, the tensions over the South China Sea were hard to ignore. At a meeting in May 2010, China’s top foreign affairs official, Dai Bingguo, told a stunned Mrs. Clinton that Beijing regarded vast swaths of the sea, which it shares with Vietnam, the Philippines and other neighbors, as its territory. The economic stakes are great, given the resources beneath the sea’s surface.

“China had been on a charm offensive and had really been making inroads with their neighbors in kind of soothing fears and showing restraint,” Mrs. Clinton said. “And then I think that the Chinese began to flex their muscles.”

The White House decided to draw a line. Two months later, Mrs. Clinton, working with Mr. Bader and Kurt M. Campbell, the hard-charging assistant secretary for East Asia in the State Department, sprang a surprise. At a summit meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, she declared that the United States would take an interest in resolving disputes over the sea. China was livid, while Vietnam and the Philippines felt that they had a potent new backer.

China also underlies Mr. Obama’s opening to Myanmar. During the long estrangement between the United States and its military dictators, China set out to turn the isolated country, also known as Burma, into a colonial outpost. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama welcomed Myanmar’s opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to the White House.

Mr. Campbell rejected the suggestion that the United States was pursuing a cold-war-style containment of China, saying that the notion was “simplistic and wrong.” At the same time, he said, “the Chinese respect strength, determination and strategy.”

Exhibit A in that approach, he and others said, is the tortuous but ultimately successful negotiation over the dissident Chen Guangcheng, who sought refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing and was allowed to fly to New York.

With China embroiled in a leadership transition, Beijing now sometimes sounds like the beleaguered party. Over lunch with Mr. Donilon in Beijing recently, China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, complained about being pressured over the South China Sea. “Big countries can get bullied by little countries,” Mr. Yang said, according to a senior aide who was in the room.

But China shows few signs of backing down. It filed its own case at the World Trade Organization against the United States on the same day as Mr. Obama’s latest action. And when Mr. Panetta met in Beijing with China’s presumed next leader, Xi Jinping, he got an earful on a territorial dispute involving tiny islands claimed by Japan and China.

Looking back, some former officials argue that it was not Mr. Obama who changed, but the Chinese. “People say we got mugged by reality,” Mr. Bader said. “No, the Chinese behaved differently in 2010, and what we did reflected their behavior.”

This story orginally appeared in The New York Times.

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