Clinton Gets Tough on China

Why the Asian giant hopes it can appeal to Obama to restrain Hillary.

President Barack Obama caused a stir on Nov. 9 when, in response to a question asked at a joint press conference with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, he said, “We think China being prosperous and secure is a positive.  And we’re not interested in containing that process. We want China to continue to achieve its development goals.” After a summer of diplomatic confrontations along the Pacific Rim, for the U.S. president to wish to see China grow stronger seemed more than odd. Yet, Obama was just falling back on what has been a boilerplate talking-point since the Clinton administration. If it sounds increasingly hollow and misguided, it is because the rise of Chinese ambitions has been drawing the smaller nations of Asia back towards the United States, which has, in turn, been strengthening its alliances with nations like Japan and India.

Though the White House line has been that Obama’s tour of Asia is focused on export promotion, it is clear that the president’s only stops – India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan – signal a geopolitical agenda that is aimed at containing China, though other terms are being used. When asked the same question posed to Obama, Yudhoyono responded:

We also have the responsibility to ensure stability and security in our region. I am not using any theory or the theory of one power to counterbalance the other powers.  But I do have the view that there must be some form of dynamic equilibrium in Asia Pacific, in East and Southeast Asia.

Prior to this statement, Obama and Yudhoyono had discussed “the issue of the South China Sea and how various maritime issues, conflicts, can get resolved in a peaceful fashion.“  Beijing’s assertion of control over the South and East China seas was at the center of the summer’s turmoil. It was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who took the lead last July in pledging U.S. support against the Chinese at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Vietnam. A group of U.S. aircraft carriers though the South China Sea and a port visit to Danang by a guided missile destroyer backed up her words.

At a Nov. 9 Washington event to launch his important new book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Robert D. Kaplan noted that by assigning major duties in the Middle East to special envoys, Secretary Clinton has been freed up to concentrate on Asia. This is an interest she showed from the onset of her tenure when she managed to wrest a co-chair slot with China for the State Department in the twice yearly Strategic and Economic Dialogue summits. These meetings had been initiated and run by the more collaborationist Treasury Department.

Beijing understands this very well. A Nov. 10 editorial in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times warned: “a couple of smart power tricks are shaking the vulnerable stability in the western Pacific.” The essay mentions only Clinton, not Obama. “Clinton has a complicated interpretation of the ‘smart power’ theory. She uses a handful of tools such as diplomacy, economics, military, and politics, as well as legal, and cultural tools,” said the paper, adding:

The fact that a few words by Clinton could have such an impact in this region indicates that many countries in Asia are more or less under the influence of the US. It doesn’t matter if these countries felt they were acting on their best interests or not, they often made their moves as if they were robots programmed by the US.

Indonesia is about to assume the chair of ASEAN. The week before Obama’s trip to Asia commenced, Clinton represented the U.S. at the East Asia Summit in Vietnam.  The secretary has spent a great deal of time cultivating amicability with the nations of Southeast Asia, but the president does not seem to care. He spent a minimum amount of time in Jakarta, then rewarded David Carden, a political fundraiser with no diplomatic experience, with an appointment as ambassador to ASEAN – as if it were a mere patronage post.

No wonder China’s leaders hope they can appeal to President Obama to restrain Secretary Clinton. In September, the president seemed to be trying to ease tensions by meeting personally with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session. There, he stressed economic cooperation, always the counter to national security concerns about great power rivalry.

In India, however, Obama raised several issues that were aimed directly at China. He talked about implementing the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement signed by President George W. Bush; forging partnerships in high-tech sectors like defense and space; and taking India off the restricted export list so it can be “treated the same as our very closest allies and partners.” Technology that can be used for military purposes is denied to China, about which Beijing has long complained. Obama also endorsed a permanent UN Security Council seat for India, something China adamantly opposes.

Obama also assailed the stolen election in Burma as “unacceptable” which kept the military junta in power. The U.S. president told the Indian Parliament, “Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community – especially leaders like the United States and India – to condemn it…..It’s not violating the rights of sovereign nations. It is staying true to our democratic principles.” Such a statement is guaranteed to get the attention of the Chinese dictatorship.

Kaplan devotes a chapter of Monsoon to Burma, describing it as a strategic area where Indian and Chinese interests collide. He writes, “The most direct route into the heart of China is through Burma….And China’s attitude toward Burma is, as it happens, similar to its attitude towards North Korea.” The current regimes in both places may be “demented” but Beijing has a long-term interest in keeping India and Burma secure buffer states, as well as using them for sources of raw materials. With Burma at the top of the Bay of Bengal, India has had to shift more of its military strength and infrastructure development to its western frontier.  If Obama understands the sensitivity of the Burma issue to both India and China, then his comments have to be seen as a jab at China.

When President Obama took office, he seemed determined to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while avoiding any new confrontations elsewhere. Beijing saw this as an opportunity to move forward on its agenda, especially when the West was shaken by the financial crisis. The days of American hegemony looked to be at an end. But China has moved too fast, alarming its neighbors. There has been an appeal to the U.S. to maintain a balance of power that can give the nations of Asia the freedom to develop along a more enlightened path than the model Beijing offers.

There are hopeful signs that at least some in the Obama administration have heard the call. But whether significant actions will follow is still unknown, because initiatives in the region are not coming from President Obama, who is personally still sending mixed signals about whether he wants to appease or contain China’s rise.  And such ambiguity is neither good for alliance cohesion nor for the deterrence of aggression.