Hillary Clinton’s book Hard Choices reaffirms what critics have long stated about President Barack Obama’s China policy: that there is none but merely vague generalizations and that the administration is largely reactive rather than proactive.
Clinton’s book will be welcomed by those who are interested in certain areas of the world more than others, because, unlike many memoirs, this book is not organized chronologically. Instead, there is a chapter for each region or country of special interest: one on Afghanistan, one on Pakistan, one on Europe, one on China, and a whole chapter on Chen Guangcheng.
Clinton allows that there are three possible approaches to the region. The United States could prioritize “broadening our relationship with China” to encompass new issues and areas of potential collaboration, or it could emphasize “strengthening America’s treaty alliances in the region,” or it could “elevate and harmonize the alphabet soup of regional multilateral alliances.” Clinton writes that she favored an amalgam of the three approaches. She writes, “Over the next four years, we practiced what I called ‘forward-deployed diplomacy’ in Asia borrowing a term from our military colleagues. We quickened the pace and widened the scope of our diplomatic engagement across the region, dispatching senior officials and development experts far and wide, participating more fully in multilateral organizations, reaffirming our traditional alliances, and reaching out to new strategic partners.” A fine mix that says little about the strategic choices at issue: should the U.S. yield some of its positions it amassed in the region to make room for a rising China? Or insist that every pile of rocks is worth fighting over? Seek to contain China – or seek to engage it as a partner in management of regional, if not global, affairs?
One exception to the bland mixture, is Clinton’s call for “multilateralism.” Until roughly 2009, Clinton writes, China operated according to a strategy of “hide and bide.” It recognized the superior military power of the United States and generally hewed to the principles of international law. In 2009 and 2010, China began to doubt American regional commitment and view American power as in decline. These observations led hardliners in the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army to adopt a “more assertive approach” and become a “‘selective stakeholder,’ picking and choosing when to act like a responsible great power and when to assert the right to impose its will on its smaller neighbors.”
Clinton reports that she succeeded in developing an effective counter strategy. She argues that United States should refuse to become involved in specific disputes and instead encourage China’s smaller neighbors to avoid facing China unilaterally – which China sought – in favor of dealing with China on a multilateral level, particularly through organizations such as ASEAN. She considers her articulation of this viewpoint at the 2010 ASEAN regional meetings in Hanoi a “tipping point” in China’s relations with its neighbors, as one of her great foreign policy achievements.
In fact, ASEAN turned out to be a rather weak multilateral organization whose members often cannot agree on a joint position. Some members*, especially Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, view China “as favourabl[y] as America.” And China provides foreign investment and humanitarian aid to countries like Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, none of which want to risk China’s support. Others, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, seem much likelier to use a multilateral forum to air their grievances against China and call for action. China continues to assert its territorial claims, including those regarding its EEZ and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and expresses them with moves such as positioning an oil rig next to Vietnam and establishing an ADIZ over disputed territory.
Most times, as Clinton’s memoir reveals, the Obama administration was mainly reactive rather than proactive in dealing with China. Clinton reports that during one visit to China she was informed by a Chinese diplomat that China was troubled by two countries’ – Andorra and the United States – “failure to participate” in a Chinese world expo. Clinton responded by taking care of this challenge; by collecting private sector donations, she secured funding for the United States pavilion.
Clinton devotes many pages to discussing her role in guaranteeing Chen Guangcheng, a human rights activist previously under house arrest in China, an avenue to leave China to study in the United States. (Presumably, she grants the subject much attention because it documents her dedication to human rights. Members of the commentariat previously criticized her for not speaking about human rights sufficiently when dealing with China.)
Both dealing with the pavilion and with Chen Guangchen were U.S. reactions to events that were driven by others, not U.S. led. And neither helped focus the mind on the question: What is the China policy of the United States under the Obama Administration?
* Removed “Bangladesh,” which, of course, is not a member of ASEAN.