Features | Politics | East Asia

Clinton’s Sweet & Sour China Soup

Hillary Clinton’s new essay on the US role in Asia makes clear the United States is there to stay. There’s little China can do about it.

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. 

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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.

Of special interest to Beijing would be the announcement, made in the Clinton statement, that the United States will soon deploy its newest high-tech littoral combat ships to Singapore. In addition, given recent signs of a political thaw in Burma and the military junta’s abrupt cancellation of a $3 billion dam project to be constructed by China, Clinton’s olive branch to Burma’s rulers in her statement should undoubtedly cause some heartburn in the Chinese capital. Clinton’s tough statement on maintaining the stability and freedom of navigation in the South China, repeating essentially what she said just a year ago in Hanoi, is unlikely to go down well in Beijing, either. Many Chinese officials now blame the United States for the escalating tensions in the South China Sea.  
Even measures aimed at promoting trade and investment won’t escape scrutiny in Beijing. The most worrying initiative mentioned by Clinton in this area will be the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a future free trading bloc in the Asia-Pacific that excludes China. Even though this American initiative remains in its conceptual stage, its long-term strategic implications may be too unpleasant for Chinese officials to contemplate. 
Taken together, at the strategic level, the Clinton statement will be seen in Beijing simply as another declaration that the United States is determined to remain as Asia-Pacific’s pre-eminent power. That is probably why the essay is titled ‘America’s Pacific Century.’ The strategic message to every country in the region, particularly China, is crystal clear: don’t count us out and don’t even think about pushing us out. 

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Seeing itself as the inevitable regional hegemon, and the United States a declining superpower, China can’t be pleased by this bold assertion of American resolve. But in reality, there’s little China can do, either today or in the foreseeable future, to change this strategic reality. The staying power of US pre-eminence in Asia doesn’t solely depend on Washington’s absolute or even relative capabilities (which are declining). It is derived from the United States’ unique role as Asia’s strategic balancer. Elsewhere in the world, the United States may be deeply resented for its power and imperial overreach. In Asia, the American presence is welcomed with open arms. The reason is simple: However unpleasant US hegemony may be, Asians would pick it over Chinese hegemony at any time. 
Unless China can do something to transform this geopolitical reality in Asia, it will have no choice but to learn to co-exist and thrive under the shadow of enduring American pre-eminence.