China’s Shadow Looms Over Clinton’s Asian Trip

The secretary’s visits highlight the strategic competition underway in East Asia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in China on Tuesday for two days of meetings with top officials where she is expected to discuss a wide range of issues including the disputes between China and its neighbors over uninhabited islands in the South China Sea.

Clinton is on an eleven day, six nation trip to Asia that could be her last if she steps down at the end of the Obama Administration’s first term.

The visit is meant to convoy the United States’ commitment to the economic and security issues in Asia encapsulated in what the administration has dubbed the Asian “pivot.” The countries that Clinton visits highlight the strategic competition for influence that is underway between China and the United States in the region.

Clinton’s initial stop was in Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, where she attended the annual summit of the Pacific Islands Forum. It was the first time for such a high level delegation from the United States to attend the conference in the forum’s 41 year history, sending a clear message to China that is shares the concerns of smaller nations in the Pacific area about China’s rising influence in Asia.

In Jakarta, after discussions about the United States-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership, Secretary Clinton urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to maintain unity in order to find a multilateral solution to the South China Sea disputes with China. This comes as Indonesia has played a leading role in drafting a code of conduct for the South China Sea after the debacle of the July summit of the ASEAN Regional Forum where China pressured the incumbent ASEAN chair Cambodia into scuttling the inclusion of a code of conduct in the joint communiqué. It was the first time in its history that ASEAN succumbed to an outside power using leverage to thwart consensus within the group.

Secretary Clinton’s China leg of the trip began on Tuesday with a meeting with her Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi. She said that the United States are “committed to building a cooperative partnership with China” and called on policymakers in Beijing to negotiate with ASEAN over the South China Sea disputes.

On Wednesday, Clinton is to hold meetings with President Hu Jintao, Vice President Xi Jinping and State Councilor Dai Bingguo on the full range of issues concerning the Sino-American relationship.

China views Americans involvement in the South China Sea as meddling in the region’s affairs. It also blames the United States for inflaming Chinese relations with neighboring countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. As such, it was no surprise that China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said this week, “We hope the US side will keep its commitment and make efforts that help, rather than harm, regional peace and stability.”

Before her arrival, The Global Times, a tabloid newspaper that is owned by the state controlled People’s Daily, singled out Hillary Clinton for criticism in an op-ed. It blamed her for “reinforcing US-China mistrust.” On its website on Monday, it conducted a survey that contained the question, “Hillary qualified to talk to China over the Diaoyu Islands, the South China Sea?”

China and Japan are embroiled in a territorial dispute over what the latter calls the Senkaku Islands, situated north of Taiwan.

When the China talks conclude, Secretary Clinton will stop in East Timor and Brunei before flying to Vladivostok, Russia where the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting is taking place.

Brunei was presumably included because it will chair ASEAN in 2013. It is assumed that Clinton will attempt to stiffen Brunei’s spine against pressure from China to influence the regional body’s agenda like it was able to do with Cambodia earlier this year.