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Obama Urges China To Be Constrained Within International Rules


China came up yesterday when we interviewed President Obama. The president recently visited neighbors of China, including U.S. allies. The Chinese have confronted several of their neighbors in disputes over territory, which raised a question for the president.


INSKEEP: Does the United States have an interest beyond its specific alliances in preventing China from dominating East Asia and the waters around East Asia, where China's been making some aggressive moves?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, we do not have an interest in stopping China from becoming successful. China is the most populous country on earth. At some...

INSKEEP: But I'm asking about the power, not their success.

OBAMA: No, I - well, I understand. But at some level, they're going to be a big dog in that neighborhood. And we welcome China's peaceful rise. In many ways, it would be a bigger national security problem for us if China started falling apart at the seams.

INSKEEP: The president spoke of accepting Chinese power but also limiting it. He wants China to follow widely accepted international rules.


OBAMA: Let's create a code of conduct in which - without taking any position on whether this particular rock in the middle of the water belongs to this party or that party. Let's find a systematic, legal way for us to resolve these disputes without resolving to conflict.

INSKEEP: That's President Obama speaking yesterday. NPR's Frank Langfitt has been listening from Shanghai. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's decode that a little bit - rock in the middle of the water. What's the president talking about there?

LANGFITT: Well, he's talking about these disputes that China has over islands with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, in the East and the South China Sea. This is about to some degree fishing grounds, oil. But really it's about control of these waters and China getting a sphere of influence, which it's wanted for some time. That's interesting 'cause talking about the peaceful rise of China recently most of the neighbors haven't - that rise hasn't seemed so peaceful to them.

You know, over the weekend Japan says that Chinese fighters flew within about 100 feet of a Japanese reconnaissance plane in the East China Sea. That's very close. There's concern, you know, what would happen if they collide? And again, we're talking about the second- and third-largest economies in the world. And earlier this month, China put an oil rig in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, and that sparked huge riots in Vietnam. There's a lot of burning of factories and thousands of Chinese actually had to flee the country.

INSKEEP: Well, the President spoke of trying to get China constrained within international rules. Does China see itself developing its power within the same rules that President Obama does?

LANGFITT: Not that anyone can tell so far. You know, when he talks about a code of conduct, there's been talk of that for years out here and diplomats in Southeast Asia would say that China's stalling. And you could understand why. It's not really in China's interest. China's a lot more powerful certainly than Vietnam and the Philippines. And the international rules would just limit that use of power.

Again, to go back to the situation in Vietnam, when they moved the oil rig in, they brought in 80 boats, kind of an armada, to protect it. And this week actually, Chinese and Vietnamese boats rammed each other, and a Vietnamese boat actually sank. So in most of these disputes, China has numbers on its side, and it seems unlikely that they'd want to give that up.

INSKEEP: Frank, this is an impression that we took away both from the President's speech and the interview. He's of course talking about a balanced use of American foreign policy tools that military force is only one of them. But he was most passionate it seemed when talking of restraint in the use of American force. How is that likely to be received where you are, Frank?

LANGFITT: Well, I think it depends on the country. I think in Beijing - I mean, I - first I want to say in all of these capitals, people were watching the speech and watching it very closely. I suspect in Beijing this fits into what China's hoping for - that the United States after two wars, after the financial crisis, is going to be a lot more restrained when it comes to using military force. And that would work to China's interest as it tries to assert itself in the East and South China seas.

I think in places like the Philippines and Vietnam, they might be a little more nervous. Particularly the Philippines and Japan, which are both - we both have - the United States has defense treaties with them. Those countries are looking for the United States ultimately to back them up. And when they hear this kind of talk that may make them just a little more nervous.

INSKEEP: Frank, thanks as always.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai.

INSKEEP: Now, our talk with President Obama came yesterday at West Point. Elsewhere in the program and at npr.org, you can find the president's comments about Syria, about Ukraine and about the problems he does not want to leave his successor. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.