U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Beijing this week, against a backdrop of escalating maritime disputes that have pitted China against American allies in the region.
Clinton’s current 11-day trip through the Asia-Pacific region has highlighted a series of regional frictions, ranging from the age-old territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, to a newly emerging battle for hearts and minds in the South Pacific. Clinton will spend Sept 4-5 in Beijing, meeting with senior Chinese officials including Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. This trip will be her last opportunity to discuss these tensions face to face with senior Chinese officials before the presidential elections in November.
More than a year ago, President Obama’s administration declared it would “re-balance” policy attention with a “pivot to Asia”, after a decade-long obsession with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ever since, Washington has been redirecting resources and readjusting policies , triggering jitters in Beijing that America and China could be headed towards a new Cold War. Yao Yunzhu of China’s Academy of Military Science described Beijing’s perspective this way: “The U.S. rebalance towards Asia is being perceived as an attempt to contain China.”
The most urgent issue on Clinton’s agenda has to do with the South China Sea, where Beijing and a handful of its neighbors are entangled in territorial disputes. Earlier this year vessels from China and the Philippines faced off in a belly-bumping contest over an area called Scarborough Shoal. Recently China has also built new structures—including solar panels and a windmill—on the disputed archipelago known, aptly enough, as Mischief Reef (it’s called Panganiban Island by Manila, which also claims it). Beijing occupied the low-lying atoll in 1995, erecting stilt platforms that have morphed steadily into a Chinese military garrison.
Dueling claims in the South China Sea have polarized the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-member Southeast Asian regional bloc. During a regular ASEAN meeting in July in Cambodia, the group failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in four and a half decades; Manila and Hanoi accused host Cambodia of caving to Chinese pressure aimed at keeping the South China Sea off the agenda. Regarding the schism, an U.S. official who spoke to journalists travelling with Clinton on condition of anonymity said, “The most important thing is that we end up in a diplomatic process where these issues are addressed in a strong diplomatic conversation between a unified ASEAN and China rather than through any kind of coercion.”
Recent months have also seen an uptick in frictions between Beijing and Tokyo—a U.S. military ally—over their disputed claims to the Diaoyu islands (known in Japanese as the Senkakus). And official eyebrows raised in Beijing when Clinton made an unusual trip to the tiny outpost of the Cook Islands with an entourage consisting of 60 delegation members and a U.S. aircraft carrier. Clinton went to Rarotanga to attend the 43rd meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum, the first time such a senior U.S. official has participated in such a meeting.
Chinese authorities were clearly irked. In recent years Beijing has dramatically boosted its economic and diplomatic engagement with the South Pacific region, pouring money into infrastructure construction and grants for Chinese language instruction. While many of the Pacific islands are physical flyspecks, Chinese authorities are focused on the regional grouping partly because its members account for several dozen votes at the United Nations, and they often vote as a bloc.
The high-profile display of American muscle in the South Pacific was inappropriate, said Jin Canrong, vice director of the School of international studies at Beijing’s Renmin University, in a recent Global Times op-ed entitled “Carrier not right envoy for South Pacific.” Jin argued that “sending an aircraft carrier to the South Pacific reminds countries and regions there that the U.S. can offer them good protection. But this is not what they need…what they really need is investment and technology, something that the U.S. cannot offer. The U.S. is still a rich country but its hands are tied up by its own financial woes and it cannot possibly provide large sums of aid to the South Pacific….China, on the other hand, has the mechanisms to help its entrepreneurs find business opportunities there.”
On her visit Clinton praised the “American model of partnership"—seen in Beijing as a subtle dig at China’s resource-hungry focus on extractive industries in many areas of Africa and Southeast Asia. She also unveiled $32 million in new American programs on sustainable development and climate change. She reminded South Pacific leaders that “seventy years ago, Americans made extraordinary sacrifices on many of the islands represented here and we have since then underwritten the security that has made it possible for the people of this region to trade and travel freely," Clinton said.
However she also appeared to downplay suggestions that the area, long a strategic backwater, was becoming a new focus for big-power rivalries. She said the U.S. welcomed the chance to work with China and other Pacific partners, such as Japan and the European Union, in the region. “We all have important contributions and stakes in this region's success, to advance your security, your prosperity and your opportunity. And I think the Pacific is big enough for all of us," she said. From the perspective of many Chinese strategists fearing U.S. containment, however, the Pacific seems to be shrinking by the day.