Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added a new stop to her whirlwind tour of Asia that begins tomorrow, agreeing to travel to China for a meeting with State Counselor Dai Bingguo. Rather than meet in Hanoi, where both U.S. and Chinese delegations will be present for the East Asia Summit, the meeting will take place on Hainan Island -- a location fraught with political meaning for the two countries.
In April 2001, Hainan Island captured the attention of Washington when a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and crash landed there. The Chinese detained the 24 crew members for 11 days until the Bush administration delivered what became known as the "Letter of the two sorries." Your humble Cable guy was an intern at the House International Relations Committee at the time and remembers well the tension and angst in Washington regarding the Chinese government's behavior during the incident, which constituted President George W. Bush's first real foreign policy crisis.
Fast forward to this week, when Clinton will land on the island (hopefully safely) at Chinese behest, during a less panicked but arguably more complicated juncture in the U.S.-China relationship. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters Tuesday that the meeting is part of the effort to increase high-level interactions at the top of the U.S.-China relationship, though he downplayed the significance of the location.
"I think State Counselor Dai had contemplated a trip to Vietnam, and then for a variety of scheduling purposes, the Chinese side thought it would make more sense for a quick visit to Hainan," he said. "I think it's nothing out of the ordinary. It's in many respects just a convenience for Chinese friends in particular."
But he also acknowledged that there is a lot of work to do on both sides to bring the U.S.-China relationship back to a point where President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao can have a successful meeting in Washington early next year.
"We are seriously engaged in high-level diplomacy to ensure that this trip and the preparations in advance for it go smoothly," Campbell said.
The location of high-level meetings is not insignificant. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with his Chinese counterpart this month on neutral ground in Hanoi after months of cool military to military relations, which began after the Chinese rejected Gates' offer to visit China. Hanoi is also the location where Clinton laid out the administration's view on the South China Sea dispute in a speech that shocked and upset the Chinese government.
Meanwhile, a lot of reporting in Washington this week has suggested that the Obama administration's new strategy is to build up alliances in Asia while "stiffening its approach toward Beijing." Administration officials tell us that this "stiffening" started as early as last May after the Gates snub and alliance-building has been taking place since the beginning of the administration. But only just now is it showing dividends in public, as was seen during Clinton's last visit to Hanoi, where several other nations stood up to support her remarks.
Campbell explains the balance of the two efforts this way:
"The United States wants very much a strong, productive relationship with China. We're seeking to intensify our dialogue on a range of issues," he said. "We're also working closely with a number of states in the Asian-Pacific region, most prominently to underscore the U.S. strong commitment to remain an active, engaged, diplomatic, political, security and economic player in the Asian-Pacific region going forward at this time."
Campbell also dismissed a Washington Times report that said the administration's China team is divided into two groups: the "kowtow group" that seeks to placate Beijing and the "sad and disappointed" group that is arguing for a tougher tone.
"I think that the discussion of this kind of division is wrong, is incorrect. And myself as a person, I think of myself as quite optimistic, generally," Campbell said.
AFP / Getty Images