WASHINGTON — When Barack Obama first entered the White House, the leader who campaigned on a message of hope and change had called for new areas of cooperation between the United States and a rising China.
Four years later, Obama is starting his second term with his administration taking a tough tone on China over a territorial dispute with US ally Japan, prompting a rebuke from Beijing on the eve of his inauguration.
The shift marks part of a gradual transition in Obama’s policy toward China, with some analysts noting that Beijing had taken a more assertive stance due to perceptions the United States was in decline.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meeting Friday with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan’s new right-leaning government, issued a veiled warning over the islands known as the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese.
The United States opposes “any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration” of the largely uninhabited islands after growing accounts of Chinese ships and planes in the area, Clinton said.
China said it was “strongly dissatisfied with and resolutely opposes” Clinton’s remarks and the state-run Xinhua news agency said that Obama “failed to significantly enhance strategic trust” between the countries in his first term.
The three nations have all taken small conciliatory steps since Friday, with Xinhua also saying that it was “cautiously optimistic” that Obama would improve ties in his second term.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, known for his hawkish views, sent the leader of his pacifist-oriented coalition partner New Komeito to hand-deliver a letter to China’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there was “nothing new” in Clinton’s remarks.
The United States has previously indicated that it does not take a position on the islands’ sovereignty but considers them under the effective control of Japan — and hence protected by a US security treaty.
But Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Clinton marked a shift by saying — without mentioning Beijing by name — that the United States opposed China’s actions.
“The administration over the last several months has tried through quiet diplomacy to encourage both sides to be restrained,” she said.
“My own view is that we’ve seen a lot more restraint from the Japanese than we have from the Chinese. I think the Chinese are taking advantage of every opportunity to escalate the situation and to make their claim on the ground, if you will, irreversible.”
In September, a previous Japanese government bought the islands from private Japanese landowners, in what it described as a way to head off a more provocative bid by Tokyo’s then nationalist local governor to develop them.
China has since dispatched marine surveillance ships and vowed to exert sovereignty over the islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan.
The move comes as China undergoes a once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Nationalists took to the streets of Chinese cities in September to voice anger against Japan, a rare step in a country where protests are usually banned.
Clinton has been at the forefront of renewed US focus on Asia.
In perhaps the signature moment of the shift on China, she said in Vietnam in 2010 that the United States had a “core interest” in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where several nations accused Beijing of growing assertiveness.
Senator John Kerry, whom Obama has tapped to succeed Clinton, has devoted more time to South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, leading some pundits to predict that East Asia policy will be increasingly led by the White House.
Kerry will lay out his foreign policy ideas at a confirmation hearing on Thursday.