Clinton Due in Beijing Ahead of Asia-Pacific Summit
China and the United States are dialing down their rhetorical broadsides over greater U.S. military and economic influence in Asia ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beijing Tuesday.
Washington and Beijing have variously accused each other of trying to manipulate the outcome of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, especially after Southeast Asian foreign ministers failed to agree on a code of conduct for the dispute in July.
Following that meeting in Phnom Penh, U.S. officials said China used Cambodia to derail the agreement because it prefers to deal with rival claimants one-on-one. And Chinese officials accused Western governments of meddling in the dispute to keep Asia divided.
Leading up to Clinton’s third trip to Asia since May, China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, said the United States is “stirring up disputes” in the region to curb Chinese influence. This was part of Washington’s “surreal ambition of ruling the Asia-Pacific and the world,” according to Xinhua.
But it was a far less antagonistic climate once Clinton arrived in the Cook Islands stop on her Asia tour, with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai saying Beijing is “in this region not to seek any particular influence, still less dominance.”
“We’re here to be a good partner for the island countries, we’re not here to compete with anyone,” he told reporters at the annual meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum. “The thrust of China’s policy toward the Pacific is to achieve peace, stability and development.”
Cui said China is ready to work with other countries, but “it will not mean that China will have to change its foreign aid policy.”
Clinton appeared equally conciliatory, saying the Obama administration believes “it is important for the Pacific Island nations to have good relationships with as many partners as possible, and that includes China as well as the United States.”
“Now I know there are those who see America’s renewed engagements over the last three and a half years in the Pacific perhaps as a hedge against particular countries,” Clinton said. “But the fact is the United States welcomes cooperation with a number of partners, including Japan, the European Union, China, and others. The Pacific is big enough for all of us.”
South China Sea claims
Beijing is increasingly assertive in claiming nearly all of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, which is thought to hold vast energy deposits and is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all have competing claims to parts of the sea, which Xinhua says “should become a spot that ties the region together, not one that pulls it apart.”
Given the sensitivity of President Obama’s so-called “Asia Pivot” and the rival South China Sea claims, U.S. officials say they had “very intense consultations” with every key player in the Asia Pacific ahead of this trip.
“It is absolutely essential that cooler heads prevail in every capital, and that great care be taken on these issues,” says a senior State Department official. “They have been managed generally effectively for decades. And during this period we’ve seen some of the most manifest Asian prosperity. We need that to continue. This is the cockpit of the global economy, and so care must be taken across the board.”
The senior official says all Asian countries “must find a way to deal with China. It’s not a matter of geo-strategy. It’s a matter of geography. So they do not have a choice in the sense that they must find a way to engage effectively and pragmatically on issues of mutual concern.”
Secretary Clinton says she was looking forward to talks in Beijing about what more China and the the United States can do to further sustainable development.
“We want to see more multinational development projects that include the participation of China,” she says. “We want a comprehensive, positive, cooperative relationship between the United States and China. We think it is good for our country, it’s good for our people, and in fact, it’s not only good for this region, it’s good for the world.”
“We speak very frankly about areas where we do not agree,” she said. “We both raise issues that the other side would prefer perhaps we not, or they not. But I think our dialogue has moved to a positive arena because we are able to discuss all matters together.”
At Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, senior fellow Bonnie Glaser says China and the United States both have an interest in containing arguments over competing territorial claims.
“The U.S. and China continue to try to work together to diffuse tensions, to exchange views on what can be done, to talk about, for example, the content of a code of conduct” over the South China Sea, she says.
“While we can sit on the outside and encourage these countries to take their disputes to an international mediation, ultimately this is only something that the claimants themselves can decide.”