Clinton’s Sweet & Sour China Soup

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spelled out Washington’s policy toward Asia in an essay in Foreign Policy released earlier today. Although the elaboration of this policy seems belated with the Obama administration approaching the end of its third year in office, Clinton spared no pains in describing and clarifying the various components of the United States’ Asia policy. 

Among the most avid readers of Clinton’s essay will be senior foreign policy makers in Beijing. The official response to the Clinton statement will most likely be muted. On the surface, at least, she didn’t announce new initiatives or policy changes. The apparent reason for Clinton issuing this document now is to reassure regional allies of the continuing US commitment to the region in spite of its domestic difficulties and rising isolationist sentiments, and to send a strong signal to China that Washington will maintain its current policy of deepening engagement with Beijing. It’s anybody’s guess whether she chose to time her statement on Asia with the imminent arrival of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (who will become China’s top leader in 2012) in Washington for his important official visit in November. 
 
However, a closer reading of the document is sure to produce mixed feelings in Beijing. Chinese officials will pay special attention to Clinton’s Asia policy statement at three levels. 
 
Of the most immediate interest to the Chinese is the part on bilateral relations.  Here they would most probably feel pleased. She not only placed deepening relations with emerging powers, including China, as the second most important policy component, but also devoted the largest portion of her essay, about one-seventh, to US-China relations. (By comparison, India got one paragraph, and was lumped together with Indonesia when she mentioned other emerging powers.)  An additional reason for Beijing to like the Clinton statement is the positive tone in which she cast US-China relations. She appeared to go out of her way to accentuate those aspects of US-China relations that actively strengthen bilateral cooperation in a wide range of areas. 
 
However, Chinese officials’ mood will certainly grow more sour as they examine the other components of the United States’ Asia strategy at the policy level. In particular, they will be unnerved by those policy actions – strengthening bilateral security alliances (identified as the most important component of US policy), forging a broad-based military presence (which essentially means further upgrading and expanding US military capabilities in the Western Pacific), and advancing democracy and human rights. In Beijing’s eyes, these measures are part of a subtle framework of strategic containment and can harm Chinese security interests and undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.
 
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