On Thursday, the administration of US President Barack Obama set the tone for its foreign policy when it confirmed that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first trip abroad would be to East Asia.
State Department Spokesman Robert Wood said the trip, which will take Clinton to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and finally China, would send a “tremendous signal” to the region. More important, perhaps, is where Clinton will not go on this symbolic first tour.
As with the economy, the new US administration faces a slew of seemingly impossible foreign policy tasks. In Israel, peace seems as distant as ever after the ground invasion of Gaza last month escalated tensions in the region; Iraq is tottering on fragile democratic gains; and instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan remains one of Washington’s top security concerns, complicated by the impending closure of a US base in Kyrgyzstan under apparent pressure from the Kremlin.
But Clinton’s first visits in her new role will not be to any of these countries.
Over the last year, economic concerns have pushed their way to the fore of an American psyche that had focused on security concerns since the Sept. 11 attacks. There can be no doubt that Clinton’s meetings in China, the US’ single largest creditor, will be the highlight of the tour. They will certainly be the most watched and will be pivotal to US interests at home and in the region.
By sending the secretary of state so soon to China, the Obama administration is emphasizing that ties with Beijing will continue to be among the US’ most strategic — and carefully navigated — relationships.
Speculation already abounds about what will be said in Beijing. A recent Washington Post report was cause for concern among friends of Taiwan waiting to see what stance Obama will take on cross-strait matters. The paper said that some experts foresaw a risk that China “may demand a freer hand on Taiwan and Tibet in exchange for working with the United States on reducing emissions.”
Sources at the State Department were quick to rebuff those concerns when contacted by the Taipei Times, insisting the US would not “sell Taiwan down the river.” But compromise is the stuff of diplomacy: That China would seek to further its interests in Taiwan in this manner is a scary but hardly unlikely scenario.
When the US negotiated with Beijing in 2005 to secure the release of former Chinese congresswoman Rebiya Kadeer, Washington agreed to scrap plans to criticize China’s human rights record at the UN.
China has, in the past, used human rights issues as a bargaining chip. No doubt the best known example is the promises it made to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to improve media freedom if allowed to host the 2008 Olympics.
But Beijing often regrets these deals. This was the case both with Kadeer — whose work China has since targeted with accusations of “terrorism” — and with the pledges made to the IOC.
Despite the daunting scale of environmental problems in China, Beijing might find it a more appealing bargaining chip with the US than promising political and social freedoms. And while the Chinese Communist Party does not see respecting human rights as key to staying in power, it seems aware that environmental issues will have to be faced at some point.
Let’s just hope Taiwan does not become a mere bargaining chip.