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US takes a tougher tone with China

world Updated: Jul 31, 2010 01:33 IST

The Obama administration has adopted a tougher tone with China in recent weeks as part of a diplomatic balancing act in which the United States welcomes China's rise in some areas but also confronts Beijing when it butts up against American interests.

Faced with a Chinese government increasingly intent on testing US strength and capabilities, the US unveiled a new policy that rejected China's claims to sovereignty over the whole South China Sea. It rebuffed Chinese demands that the US military end its longtime policy of conducting military exercises in the Yellow Sea.

And it is putting new pressure on Beijing not to increase its energy investments in Iran as Western firms leave.

The US manoeuvers have prompted a backlash among Chinese officialdom and its state-run press, which has accused the United States of trying to contain China.

Yang Jiechi, the minister of foreign affairs, issued a highly unusual statement charging that the US was ganging up with other countries against China.

One prominent academic, Shen Dingli of Fudan University, compared the planned US exercises in international waters of the Yellow Sea to the 1962 Russian deployment of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba.

US officials explained the moves as part of a broader strategy to acknowledge China's emergence as a world power but to also lay down markers when China's behaviour infringes on US interests.

So at the same time that the administration has welcomed China into the Group of 20 major economies, held the biggest meeting ever between US and Chinese officials, and backed China's push to increase its influence in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, it is also seeking to limit what it thinks are China's expansionist impulses.

To this end, the Obama administration has also intensified its diplomacy and outreach to other Asian and Oceanic nations, ending a 12-year ban on ties with Indonesia's special forces and strengthening its alliances from Tokyo and Seoul to Canberra, Australia.

The strategy has won rare acclaim in Washington among the generally fractious community of China watchers. James Mulvenon, director of Defence Group Inc.'s Center for Intelligence Research and

Analysis, called it "a masterful piece of diplomacy" in dealing with China, which, he said, "continues to be this paradoxical combination of bluster, swagger and intense insecurity and caution."

In March, China told two senior US officials that the country views its claims to the 1.3 million-square-mile sea on par with its claims to Tibet and Taiwan, an island that China says belongs to Beijing.

Three flashpoints

South China Sea

The US response was unveiled on July 23 in Hanoi when 12 nations — including US — raised the issue of the South China Sea at the Association of South East Asian Nations meet. Calling freedom of navigation on the sea a US national interest, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to facilitate moves to create a code of conduct in the region. Chinese minister reacted by leaving the meeting for an hour.

Military exercise

The Obama administration has also pushed back on statements, particularly from China's People's Liberation Army, over planned military exercises in the Yellow Sea.

The US and South Korea have been planning the exercises as an act of solidarity after the sinking of a warship. But China inserted itself into the debate, claiming any military exercise would be seen as threatening to Beijing.

Sanctions on Iran

The US won Beijing's support for enhanced UN sanctions on Iran in June after Tehran's refusal to halt its program to enrich uranium. The sanctions were kept relatively weak, and China, which has investments in Iran's energy sector and is Iran's third-largest oil customer, was exempted.But now US fear that as other countries enact additional sanctions, Chinese state-owned energy firms will step in Iran as Western and Japanese investments dry up.

In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post