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Obama runs out of patience with Beijing

WASHINGTON -- Chinese President Xi Jinping's refusal to back down over his country's island-building campaign in disputed waters has hardened U.S. President Barack Obama's attitude toward Beijing. 

     Broadly speaking, world leaders can be grouped into two categories. The first includes those who believe they can solve disagreements through discussion, regardless of the adversary. In the second group are those who think that some opponents can never be reasoned with.

     Obama is a prime example of the first type. High-ranking U.S. government officials say he is generally reluctant to deploy the military. But even Obama can be pushed to the end of his tether -- as illustrated by Xi's recent visit to the U.S.

     Hoping to coax Xi into talking openly and honestly, Obama organized an informal dinner meeting on Sept. 24, the day before the Chinese leader was honored at an official state dinner. Only the two leaders and a clutch of their advisers attended. China's land reclamation in the South China Sea was one of the key topics Obama wanted to discuss.

     Creating artificial islands in contested waters would be controversial on its own, yet Beijing has raised the stakes by starting to build military facilities on some of those islands. During the informal dinner, Obama talked about the issue at length and urged Xi to halt construction of military installations. He got nowhere: According to U.S. government sources, Xi stonewalled him. 

Turning point

Right after the meeting, an incensed Obama ordered a close aide to contact Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command. Then and there, the president authorized the U.S. Navy to move ahead with an operation in the South China Sea.

     The plan is to send American warships to within 12 nautical miles, or about 22km, of China's artificial islands. Under international law, a country's territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from its shore. The maneuver would tell Beijing and its neighbors that the U.S. does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over the area.

     Top U.S. military officials had the plan ready around June. The brass wanted to take action immediately, but Obama withheld his authorization. He was hoping that face-to-face talks with Xi would make the mission unnecessary.

     Obama, however, realized that a conciliatory attitude was not going to get Beijing to cooperate, according to Edward Luttwak, a well-known U.S. military strategist. The mission would mark a major turning point for American policy toward China.

     Beijing dug itself into a hole on this one, Luttwak added.

Regional ramifications

Obama's shift clearly has implications for Japan and other Asian nations.

     According to multiple diplomatic sources, Japan and some Southeast Asian countries had been urging Washington to dispatch the naval vessels. In their view, regional stability hinges on challenging China's attempt to change the status quo by force.

     From this standpoint, Obama's decision was welcome news for Tokyo. But the mission carries risks: If the Chinese military tries to stop the American ships, it could trigger a conflict neither side may want.

     Japan needs to consider how it would respond in that scenario. This is especially crucial now that the Diet, Japan's parliament, has passed bills that allow the country to exercise collective self-defense -- coming to the aid of an ally under attack.  

Not set in stone

Still, it is premature to assume that Obama has completely abandoned his desire to work things out with China through dialogue. His willingness to negotiate with even staunch adversaries led to the nuclear deal with Iran and the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba. The president is unlikely to hastily discard such a proven approach.

     Obama has only a year left in office. Some in the White House advocate a two-pronged strategy: keeping pressure on China over its territory grab in the South China Sea, while working with Beijing on, say, combating global warming and rebuilding Afghanistan.

     It can be tough to discern what the world's biggest powers are really thinking, since they sometimes quarrel over the negotiating table while shaking hands underneath it. The Japanese government, for its part, will have to closely monitor Washington-Beijing relations and adjust its own China policy accordingly -- striking a careful balance between dialogue and pressure.

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