US 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 Obama moved quickly, to restore the influence of the US in the Asia-Pacific 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, Obama did make time to speak with 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.
On Saturday, Wen acknowledged that he did not want to discuss the issue at the summit, but added that it would be "impolite" not to answer the concerns of his country’s neighbors, according to Xinhua. He then defended China’s stance on the sea, according to the news service and an Obama administration official who briefed media on condition of anonymity.
The fact that Wen spoke at all, however, represented a tactical defeat in a struggle that has become a focal point in the larger tug-of-war with the US over influence in the region.
The US, with an eye toward strengthening ties with China's smaller neighbors, has backed their preference for multinational talks, rather than one-on-one negotiations in which China would have the advantage.
The administration official's account of the nearly two-hour session suggested a more dramatic exchange than is typical of such gatherings.