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.