Clinton Says U.S. Will Stand Up For Strategic Interests
Hillary Clinton visited Beijing this week at the height of Communist Party maneuvering over the formation of a new Chinese government. Given that timing, she found no room for compromise over competing territorial claims by China and its neighbors over the South China Sea.
“China has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters,” Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi told her bluntly. “There is plentiful historical and jurisprudential evidence for that.”
And as for competing claims to the islands and waters by the likes of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia Taiwan and others, Yang had this to say:
“As for the dispute over the sovereignty of some islands and reefs of the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and the overlapping rights, interests, and claims over some waters of the South China Sea, these should be discussed by the directly concerned countries on the basis of the fact – of historical fact and international law, and handled and settled through direct negotiations and friendly consultation.”
Bilateral or Multilateral?
In other words, China was going to deal with its neighbors’ claims in one-on-one bilateral negotiations, not the multilateral talks concept being promoted by the United States. Beijing’s approach, said Yang, was fully in keeping with an existing “declaration of conduct” between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
During her talks in Beijing, Clinton pushed back, saying the United States believes a more specific “code of conduct” with ASEAN is a better way to resolve the competing claims between China and its neighbors. She hastened to add that Washington was taking no position on the individual territorial claims, just pressing for a negotiating framework.
“Our interest is in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce,” Clinton said. “As a friend to the countries involved, we do believe it is in everyone’s interest that China and ASEAN engage in a diplomatic process toward the shared goal of a code of conduct.”
China has been critical of outside — read that U.S. — involvement in the rival maritime claims, saying foreign governments are stoking mistrust and enmity between China and its neighbors. To drive that point home, Clinton was welcomed to Beijing with reports in state-run media that many Chinese don’t like her.
“U.S. power is declining and it hasn’t enough economic strength or resources to dominate the Asia-Pacific region,” the official news agency, Xinhua, said in a commentary.
Yang did promise to “eventually” start talks with ASEAN over a code of conduct. But by agreeing to discuss terms for resolving a dispute, China seemed certain it has already won the argument. The move also put Clinton in the position of having to keep the more belligerent of the rival claimants to South China Sea territory — Vietnam and the Philippines — on board with a multi-lateral ASEAN solution.
Timing is important
Again, the timing of Clinton’s visit — in the middle of a leadership transition — may have contributed to the tone of her reception in China. There are also Beijing’s suspicions about the Obama administration’s greater military and economic involvement in the region — the so-called “Asia Pivot.”
So Clinton faced a steady stream of nationalism from officials apparently auditioning for a role in the new government.
“As for the United States policy towards the Asia Pacific region,” Yang told reporters at the Great Hall of the People, “we have always hoped that the United States would size up the situation and make sure that its policy is in conformity with the trends of our current era and the general wish of countries in the region to seek peace, development, and cooperation.”
Despite her rough reception in Beijing, Clinton says there was an important exchange of views ahead of this week’s summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, this month’s meeting of the U.N. General Assembly and November’s East Asia Summit.
“The United States — certainly I, am not going to shy away from standing up for our strategic interests and expressing clearly where we differ,” Clinton said of the Beijing reception. “The mark of a mature relationship, whether it is between nations or people, is not whether we agree on everything, because that is highly unlikely between nations and people, but whether we can work through the issues that are difficult.”