Clinton, Gates Come Down Hard on China

The American secretaries of state and defense urge China to become a more responsible world leader.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, June 13, 2009
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, June 13, 2009 (Harry Skull Jr.)

Both Secretaries Hillary Clinton of State and Robert Gates of Defense came down pretty hard on China this week. Ahead of President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington later this month, Clinton said that Sino-American relations are at a “critical juncture,” adding that the world expects China to abide by and help shape “a rules-based international order.”

Ties between the world’s two largest economies have been strained in recent months. Even as both powers remain interdependent, discord had emerged on monetary and climate policy. With America mired in recession, protectionism rears its ugly head once again while China, still rising, has become more assertive.

Washington’s newfound closeness to New Delhi, meanwhile, has prompted the Chinese to intensify their own relations with Pakistan, India’s western neighbor and foe.

China’s seeming lack of concern about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and November’s shelling of a South Korean island fueled American apprehension about China’s policy on the peninsula last year. China’s revisionist posturing in the South China Sea has also antagonized neighbors in Southeast Asia and strengthened the belief that China stopped rising peacefully.

It is all the more reason for both nations to build a “positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship,” as Secretary Clinton put it, and deepen mutual trust.

The words of Secretary Gates, who was in Beijing to mend relations this week and went on to visit Japan, might not have helped when it came to deepening trust. He said in Tokyo today that America’s military presence in East Asia remains integral to the region’s stability. “Without such a presence,” he warned, “North Korea military provocations could be more outrageous or worse. China might behave more assertively toward its neighbors.”

Gates explicitly cited a territorial dispute that erupted between China and Japan last year to underscore the lasting significance of Japan’s alliance with the United States.

The defense chief also expressed his concern about the “lethal” behavior of North Korea. Both secretaries called on the Chinese to help resolve the dangerous situation on the peninsula. Clinton urged Beijing to use its “unique ties” with the regime to persuade it to end its nuclear program.

While stressing the importance of improved bilateral relations with China, Clinton said that America views things within a “broader regional framework,” referring to the strong ties it maintains with other nations in East Asia, including Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand — all of which are worried about China’s increasing willingness to secure its interest with intimidation, if not force.

Making clear that the United States will interpret aggression against these states as an escalation that would necessitate military intervention could actually help reduce ambiguity about its commitment in East Asia and thus defuse tension. The Chinese feel increasingly encircled at the same time by a chain of American-allied nations along its eastern seaboard while some hardliners continue to believe that Washington cannot be trusted.

This is a difficult balancing game for the Obama Administration. President Hu’s visit to the United States may be an opportunity to redefine the rules of the game. Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski urged President Barack Obama last week to use the occasion to set out the principles of Sino-American cooperation which should have a wider mission than national self-interest. The relationship between the two countries should be guided by the moral imperatives of the twenty-first century’s unprecedented global interdependence instead.

Hu is due to arrive in Washington on Tuesday and will be honored with the full pomp of a state visit on Wednesday at the White House.