Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Southeast Asia last month cemented what officials and experts are recognizing as a more assertive U.S. approach to the region in the face of increased Chinese aggressiveness.
At the ASEAN regional forum in Vietnam, Clinton shocked the Chinese by announcing that the United States intends to play a prominent role in a new regional effort to create a framework for resolving territorial disputes in the waters near East and Southeast Asia. The announcement followed months of diplomatic legwork behind the scenes and provoked an angry reaction from the Chinese government and state media.
"The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion," Clinton said in Hanoi July 23, not naming China specifically. "We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant."
In a response posted to the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed surprise and described Clinton's comments as "in effect an attack on China," arguing that any territorial disputes in the region should be handled bilaterally, without U.S. involvement.
The Chinese government has been conducting its own backroom diplomatic effort with ASEAN countries, primarily related to disputes over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, a complex archipelago of hundreds of minor islands and coral reefs that are claimed by various regional powers.
"What will be the consequences if this issue is turned into an international or multilateral one?," Yang said. "It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult."
The Chinese state media was apparently more blunt.
"People's Daily, the ‘voice' of the Party, today charged the US has ‘not thought through in a calm manner' the issue of ‘how to co-exist with a rapidly developing China,'" Chris Nelson wrote in the Washington insider newsletter The Nelson Report on July 27. "Saying that if the US can't ‘control its impulses', People's Daily manages to sound like China's favorite client, North Korea, warning China ‘will not flinch' if the US keeps acting up."
If the Chinese were surprised, they were among the only ones. In the weeks leading up to the conference, U.S. officials worked hard to lay the groundwork for Clinton's announcement. Under Secretary Bill Burns was dispatched to four ASEAN countries while Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and NSC Senior Director Jeffrey Bader worked the phones to call the others.
While the Obama team was conducting its quiet diplomacy, the Chinese were working the ASEAN countries as well. In fact, China had secured an agreement from the ASEAN countries that the South China Sea issue would not be on the conference agenda. But during the meetings, the issue was on everybody's minds and when Clinton rose to address it, several other countries joined her in another clear rebuke to the Chinese. "This was organized and coordinated and when the Chinese realized that the American announcement was coordinated with the ASEAN partners, that caught them off guard," said Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The showdown could usher in a new era in Asian regional dynamics. China, which has been building its naval capabilities and working to expand its diplomatic influence, especially in Southeast Asia, has been increasingly assertive due to its rising sense of self-importance and perception that the U.S. is distracted with other international priorities. But Southeast Asian countries are wary of Chinese power and are looking to the U.S. to step in and play a larger role.
"The Chinese set themselves back years by the way they overreacted" following the conference, said Bower. "They fulfilled every bit of Southeast Asia's fears that these guys are showing us a nice face but behind it they have other objectives."
The conference appears to represent a turning point in the Obama administration's approach to China. After a year and a half of largely avoiding confrontation but getting little increased cooperation from Beijing in return, the administration is setting firm boundaries with China on key issues.
"The Obama administration started out thinking they could have this partnership with China so they treaded lightly. But their new approach is, ‘We're going to have to show them some determination and show them that we are going to follow through,'" Bower said.
An administration official close to the issue said
that Clinton's remarks in ASEAN were not meant to signal any change in the U.S.
approach toward China, which is comprehensive and complex. But increased public
discussion of international issues that involve China goes hand in hand with
the renewed U.S. commitment to being present and involved in Asia going
"Part of this is a reminder to China that we will be a player in the region for a long time," the official said.
The administration has noticed increased Chinese assertiveness on a range of issues. "China, in the recent period, has definitely sensed that that they have a perceived strategic opening," the official added.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, in a recent talk at the Nixon Center, tied Clinton's South China Sea initiative to recent uncooperative actions by the Chinese, including their cutoff of military-to-military relations with the U.S.
"We continue to stress that [military to military cooperation] is not a favor to one country or the other, but it is absolutely critical to manage this very complex process of China's own economic growth and military modernization, that a number of the issues that we have can only be satisfactorily addressed if we have direct dialogue, and that it's, frankly, counterproductive for China to see this as a benefit to be offered or withheld in relationship to other issues," he said.
Steinberg said that the recent dispute over a U.S. aircraft carrier conducing naval exercises in the Yellow Sea off China's northeast coast could have been resolved if mil-to-mil contacts were still ongoing. The U.S. tacitly acceded to China's demand to move the exercises, but the Pentagon said it will feel free to operate in the Yellow Sea in the future.
The Obama administration's overall strategy is to expand and strengthen regional mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit, which Clinton has been invited to join. The effort is meant to counter China's penchant for dealing with smaller countries on a bilateral basis, where Beijing can exert more pressure.
"Ultimately, the Chinese leadership is going to have to look at that and say: ‘Are we better off showing more flexibility and a willingness to engage on a more multilateral basis, or just insist on our position at risk of raising questions in the minds of other countries in the region as to why it's not willing to engage multilaterally?'" said Steinberg.
The administration's increased assertiveness in Southeast Asia includes its own bilateral outreach to ASEAN member countries as well, including new military cooperation with Indonesia and discussions of civilian nuclear cooperation with Vietnam.
"They are trying to strengthen ties with various Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia and that's a very worthwhile thing to do," said Paul Wolfowitz, former ambassador to Indonesia and former deputy secretary of defense.
Wolfowitz called on Obama to follow through on his promise of an Indonesia visit, which has been postponed twice.
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