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Clinton, Gates Come Down Hard on China

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

Nick Ottens

Written by

Nick Ottens
Hillary Clinton
American secretary of state Hillary Clinton testifies to the House Committee on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, December 2, 2009 (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

Both Secretaries Hillary Clinton of State and Robert Gates of Defense came down hard on China this week.

Ahead of a state visit by President Hu Jintao to Washington, 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 superpowers have been strained. Even as they remain economically interdependent, discord had emerged on monetary and climate policy. With America mired in recession, protectionism rears its ugly head once again. China, still rising, has become more assertive.

Peaceful rise?

America’s outreach to India has prompted the Chinese to deepen 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 have fueled American apprehension about China’s policy on the peninsula.

China’s revisionist posturing in the South China Sea has also antagonized neighbors in Southeast Asia and strengthened their belief that China has 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 restore trust.

Stability in East Asia

The words of Secretary Gates, who was in Beijing to mend relations this week, and who went on to visit Japan, may not have helped.

He said in Tokyo that America’s military presence in East Asia remains crucial 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.

Encirclement

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 whom 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 help reduce ambiguity about its commitment in East Asia and defuse tension. The Chinese feel encircled by a chain of American-allied nations along their eastern seaboard. Hardliners continue to believe that Washington cannot be trusted.

State visit

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 has urged President Barack Obama to use the visit 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 imperative of the twenty-first century’s unprecedented global interdependence.

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