Obama Seeks China Backing on Russia as NSA Clouds Talks With Xi

President Barack Obama sought to encourage Chinese criticism of Russia on Ukraine, while Chinese President Xi Jinping pressed Obama about a reported U.S. breach of the servers of China’s largest phone-equipment maker, as the leaders met today.

During their talks in the Netherlands while attending the Nuclear Security Summit, Obama also raised concerns about China holding up visas for U.S. news organizations and told Xi he wants the U.S., China and other Asian nations to resolve competing claims in the South China Sea to ease tensions there.

The focus of the conference has been overtaken by the crisis in Ukraine. Obama arrived earlier today for the talks in The Hague with world leaders seeking to mobilize opposition to Russia’s incursion into Crimea.

U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said China “has always put front and center this notion of sovereignty and territorial integrity” in terms of its national security interests even as it historically has allied with Russia on other issues.

That Russia can’t count on support from such a “traditional” ally when it comes to Ukraine shows how isolated it is on the issue, Rhodes said.

As the U.S. works to isolate Russia and present a united front with European and other world leaders, administration officials have pointed to the United Nations Security Council resolution that declared the March 16 referendum supporting Crimea’s secession from Ukraine illegal. Russia was the lone member that vetoed the resolution while China, which usually follows Russia’s lead at council, abstained.

Complicated Talks

Today’s talks between Xi and Obama were complicated by renewed tensions over the National Security Agency’s surveillance program and revelations by former contractor Edward Snowden. China’s Foreign Ministry today asked for a “clear explanation” from the U.S. after the New York Times and the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the NSA breached the servers of Huawei, the Chinese phone-equipment maker.

Obama made clear that the U.S. “does not engage in espionage to gain a commercial advantage,” Rhodes said, making a distinction between intelligence activities with a national security versus a commercial purpose.

Obama’s meeting with Xi comes before the U.S. president’s planned trip to Asia next month, which includes stops in South Korea and Japan. Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama, is traveling through China with their daughters on a spring break trip. The first lady, who has focused on promoting cultural and educational ties between the two nations, met with Xi March 21.

Disputed Shoal

The U.S. and China have made “incredible strides” in their relationship, and resolving the South China Sea dispute in a “constructive” way would strengthen ties throughout Asia, the U.S. president told Xi. Xi said through an interpreter that China is “firmly committed” to a “new model of international relations.”

China claims almost all the South China Sea against competing countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. Chinese ships used water cannons in January to drive Filipino fishermen away from a disputed shoal, the Philippine military said on Feb. 24.

Obama’s discussion of the foreign journalists’ visas follows months of pressure from the U.S. for China to change its policies.

Journalists with Bloomberg News and the New York Times have encountered delays with visa applications after the news organizations published reports investigating the wealth accumulated by relatives of Chinese leaders.

Vice President Joe Biden raised the issue privately with Xi in a December meeting, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement in January after Times reporter Austin Ramzy left Beijing when authorities didn’t renew his visa.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.