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.