TOKYO – Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Asia may one day be seen as the most significant visit to the region by a United States diplomat since Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to Beijing in July 1971. Kissinger’s mission triggered a diplomatic revolution. Renewal of US-Chinese relations shifted the global balance of power at the Cold War’s height, and prepared the way for China to open its economy – the decision that, more than any other, has defined today’s world. What Clinton did and said during her Asian tour will mark either the end of the era that Kissinger initiated four decades ago, or the start of a distinct new phase in that epoch.
Clinton’s tour produced the clearest signals yet that America is unwilling to accept China’s push for regional hegemony. Offstage at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Hanoi, Clinton challenged Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi over Beijing’s claim that its ownership of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea was now a “core interest.” By that definition, China considers the islands (whose ownership is disputed by Vietnam and the Philippines) as much a part of the mainland as Tibet and Taiwan, making any outside interference taboo.
Rejecting this, Clinton proposed that the US help establish an international mechanism to mediate the overlapping claims of sovereignty between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia that now exist in the South China Sea. For China, Clinton’s intervention came as a shock, and, given the warm response she received from her Vietnamese hosts – despite criticizing Vietnam’s human-rights record – the US Secretary of State may well have raised the issue at least partly at their urging, and perhaps with additional prompting from Malaysia and the Philippines.
A general fear has arisen in Asia that China is seeking to use its growing maritime might to dominate not only development of the hydrocarbon-rich waters of the South China Sea, but also its shipping lanes, which are some of the world’s most heavily trafficked. So it was welcome news when Clinton later deepened America’s commitment to naval security in the seas around China by personally attending joint naval and air exercises with South Korea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula. Likewise, military ties between the US and the most elite unit of Indonesia’s armed forces – suspended for decades – were restored during Clinton’s Asia tour.
Those war games were, most immediately, a warning to North Korea of the strength of America’s commitment to South Korea, following the North’s sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan earlier this year. Perhaps more importantly, they also confirmed that the US military is not too distracted by its Iraqi and Afghan engagements to defend America’s vital national interests in Asia.
A later portion of the war games took place in the Yellow Sea, in international waters very close to China, bluntly demonstrating America’s commitment to freedom of the seas in Asia. And this was followed by the visit of a US aircraft carrier to Vietnam, the first since the Vietnam War ended 35 years ago.
North Korea, no surprise, wailed and blustered against the war games, even threatening a “physical” response. And China not only proclaimed Clinton’s intervention over the South China Sea islands an “attack,” but also held unscheduled naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea in advance of the US-South Korean exercise.
Clinton’s visit was important not only for its reaffirmation of America’s bedrock commitment to security in Asia and the eastern Pacific, but also because it exposed to all of Asia a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Chinese foreign policy. In 2005, China’s leaders announced a policy of seeking a “harmonious world,” and set as their goal friendly relations with other countries, particularly its near neighbors. But in August 2008, the Communist Party Central Committee declared that “the work of foreign affairs should uphold economic construction at its core.”
All foreign relations have, it seems, now been made subservient to domestic concerns. For example, it is fear of spreading turmoil from a collapsing North Korea that has made Chinese policy toward the North so supine. And Chinese intransigence over the South China Sea is a direct result of the economic bonanza it suspects lies on the seabed. As a result, China is making the task of developing amicable regional relations almost impossible.
In Asia, the hope today is that Clinton’s visit will enable China’s rulers to understand that it is primarily in Asia that their country’s overall international role is being tested and shaped. Strident rhetoric and a hegemon’s disdain for the interests of smaller neighbors create only enmity, not harmony. Indeed, it is the quality of China’s ties with its Asian neighbors, particularly India, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, that will be central to forging its international image, signaling not just to the region, but to the wider world, the type of great power that China intends to be.
A Chinese policy of pressure and great-power threats against Vietnam and/or the Philippines over ownership of the Spratly Islands, or deliberate intimidation of China’s smaller South Asian neighbors, will continue to raise alarms across the Pacific and be seen as proof of the Chinese regime’s hegemonic ambitions. Unless China demonstrates that it can reach peaceful accommodations in its sovereignty disputes with its neighbors, its claims to a “peaceful rise” will appear unconvincing not only in Washington, but in capitals across Asia.
Forty years ago, the US opening to Mao’s China shocked Japan and all of Asia. Clinton’s visit has done the reverse: it has shocked China – one hopes in a way that moderates its behavior in the region. And, if a shock can be said to be reassuring, this one certainly soothed Asian concerns about America’s enduring commitment to regional security.