Sunday, November 20, 2011

Obama and Asian Leaders Confront China’s Premier

President Obama and nearly all the leaders at an Asian summit directly confronted China on Saturday for its expansive claims to the resource-rich South China Sea, putting the Chinese premier on the defensive in the long-festering dispute, according to Obama administration officials.

Premier Wen Jiabao was by turns “grouchy” and constructive as he responded to the concerns aired by almost all of the leaders attending the East Asia Summit, said one of the administration officials, who spoke to reporters aboard Air Force One as Mr. Obama returned from an eight-day diplomatic swing around the Pacific Rim.

The meeting, at the end of the summit, capped a week during which Mr. Obama moved quickly, and on several fronts, to restore the influence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region after years of preoccupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. He announced that 2,500 Marines would be stationed in Australia; opened the door to restored ties with Myanmar, a Chinese ally; and gained support for a regional free-trade bloc that so far omits Beijing.

The announcements appeared to startle Chinese leaders, who issued a series of warnings that claimed the United States was seeking to destabilize the region.

Despite the rapid-fire diplomatic challenges, Mr. Obama did make time to speak with Mr. Wen on Saturday morning after the Chinese leader asked if they could meet. And Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, described the meeting as “a good engagement.” A report in Xinhua, the official Chinese government news service, backed up the administration’s suggestion that Mr. Wen had been put in an uncomfortable position by the focus on the South China Sea, especially because the country has long insisted that the issue should not be discussed in multinational forums.

At an Asian regional meeting last year in Hanoi, at which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton bluntly warned China to curb its aggressiveness in its territorial claims, the Chinese foreign minister walked out enraged, according to officials who were there.