"When it comes to issues related to security, if you sign a treaty that calls for international arbitration around maritime issues, the fact that you're bigger than the Philippines or Vietnam or other countries in and of itself is not a reason for you to go around and flex your muscles," Obama told CNN's Fareed Zakaria in an exclusive interview earlier this week that airs Sunday. "You've got to abide by international law."
In a wide-ranging discussion that came ahead of his final visit to Asia as president, Obama said that the United States should want China to take on greater responsibilities, "not only for its own people, but, also for a wide range of international problems and conflicts, whether it's climate change or disaster relief or dealing with things like Ebola."
On Saturday, the two nations submitted plans
to reduce carbon emissions to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, which is hosting this year's Group of 20 meetings.
"I believe that history will judge today's efforts as pivotal," Obama said after submitting the US proposals.
But while the White House described the two countries efforts at addressing climate change as a "historic partnership," Obama also reportedly reiterated concerns he noted in his sit-down with Zakaria over Chinese actions in the South China Sea, which have included efforts to construct of artificial islands in disputed waters
"[W]here we see them violating international rules and norms, as we have seen in some cases in the South China Sea, or in some of their behavior when it comes to economic policy, we've been very firm," Obama told Zakaria earlier this week. "And we've indicated to them that there will be consequences." He added that he has tried to communicate to Chinese President Xi Jinping that part of the United States' strength is that it restrains itself.
"You know, when we bind ourselves to a bunch of international norms and rules, it's not because we have to, it's because we recognize that over the long-term, building a strong international order is in our interests."
The so-called pivot to Asia, later recast as a "rebalance," was supposed to be a central element of the Obama administration's foreign policy. Indeed, in a speech in Japan less than a year into his presidency, Obama described himself as America's "first Pacific president."
"I want everyone to know, and I want everybody in America to know, that we have a stake in the future of this region, because what happens here has a direct effect on our lives at home," he said in the November 2009
But Zakaria asked Obama whether the "sine qua non of the pivot," namely the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, is in trouble. "Hillary Clinton is now against it. Donald Trump is against it. Paul Ryan is even against it," Zakaria said.
Obama responded that the politics around trade "have always been complicated," but he suggested some of the criticism of the deal is misplaced.
"[The] Trans-Pacific Partnership is a historic agreement cobbled together among a very diverse set of countries," he said. "And the basic argument is simple. This is going to be the world's largest market. And if we're not setting the rules out there, somebody else is."
He acknowledged there has been a "vocal...set of interests that are opposed to trade" inside the Democratic Party, adding that there is also now a "populist anti-trade sentiment inside the Republican Party."
But he told Zakaria that "there's no serious economist who hasn't looked at this and said this is actually not only a smart trade deal, but it actually makes up for some of the failures of previous deals to have fully enforceable labor or environmental components."
For more of President Barack Obama's discussion with Fareed Zakaria, watch the exclusive interview on GPS today at 1 p.m. ET on CNN.