Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hillary Clinton pulls a 180 on Beijing

Hillary Clinton Changes America's China Policy

On Friday Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the peaceful resolution of competing sovereignty claims to the South China Sea is a U.S. "national interest." "The U.S. supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion," she said in Hanoi during a regional security conference, the Asean Regional Forum. "We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant."

Beijing quickly reacted. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi characterized Clinton's comments as "an attack on China," and in a sense he was right. China has claimed virtually all that body of water as its own. By doing so, Beijing has said it has sovereignty over the continental shelves of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Most of China's claims there are baseless, and some are ludicrous. That is perhaps why the Chinese have resorted to force to grab islands and islets from other claimants. China seized the western Paracels from Vietnam in 1974 and Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995.

Beijing opted for the softer approach by signing a multi-nation code of conduct in 2002. It was seen as largely succeeding in its recent efforts to gain control by preventing other claimants from banding together. China had shrewdly maintained a policy of participating in only bilateral negotiations so that it could use its heft to maximum advantage.

Yet it was nonetheless meeting resistance from nations in the region--especially Vietnam--and so it changed tack recently. When Jeffrey Bader, the top Asia official at the National Security Council, and James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, traveled to Beijing in March, Chinese officials for the first time said the South China Sea was one of their country's "core interests" and that they would brook no American interference there.

Beijing has tried to paint Clinton's words as the U.S. inserting itself into the region, but that could not be further from the truth. Up until now, Washington has been largely oblivious to Chinese attempts to make the South China Sea a "Chinese lake." It ignored Beijing's seizure of territory and even did little to protect ExxonMobil ( XOM - news - people ) when China, in 2008, tried to intimidate the company from entering into an exploration deal with PetroVietnam, the state energy company, in the South China Sea. In adjacent areas it has done virtually nothing to prevent China's navy from harassing Japanese warships, as it did most recently in April, and to stop Chinese submarines from regularly violating Japanese waters, which they have been doing for most of this decade.

In short, America looked like it was acceding to Chinese demands for control over the South China Sea. Beijing had overplayed its hand in recent months, however, and nations in the region were looking to oppose the Chinese. Nonetheless, all of them were seeking safety in numbers, with none wanting to aggravate Beijing by leading from the front.

In a meeting between Asean members and Yang Jiechi before Clinton arrived in Hanoi, only the Philippines was willing to raise the issue of the South China Sea. Once word spread that Clinton would adopt a firm position, however, 11 participants issued statements on the matter. No wonder the Chinese feel they were ambushed in the Vietnamese capital. Whether or not it was a trap, Clinton, in her finest hour as secretary of state, supplied leadership in Southeast Asia.

And in North Asia as well. The Clinton Doctrine--Is it too early to call it that yet?--will also reassure Japan and South Korea, both formal military allies of the U.S., that Washington is in Asia to stay.

Up until now, both nations were wavering as it looked like President Obama would follow the worst aspects of the "engagement" policies of his predecessor. His particularly disastrous November summit in Beijing seemed to confirm--to the Chinese as well as others--that China was now more powerful than the U.S. It is perhaps no coincidence that Chinese officials displayed new-found arrogance just a few weeks after the summit, going on a bender beginning with the Copenhagen climate-change conference in early December. Up until now, the U.S. was reluctant to confront China as it waited for Beijing to assume a constructive role as a great power. The Chinese, however, interpreted Washington's hope and patience as evidence of American weakness and decline. But in a few short sentences on Friday, Clinton changed that perception, both inside and outside China.

Her South China Sea declaration has been called a "landmark" and a "pivot." It is, and it may end up as the moment she redirected not only America's China policy but the China policies of nations in the region.

Beijing's unimpeded advance to global domination has just hit resistance. And it's about time.

By Gordon G. Chang author of The Coming Collapse of China. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.

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