US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent Asia tour is a significant development. It signals the intention of the new US administration to put Asia at the top of its diplomatic priorities.
Under the regime of former US president George W. Bush, all diplomacy increasingly became a function of its military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the generic war on terror. Two other important issues were North Korea and Iran.
In Asia, only China seemed to matter in terms of helping or hindering US policy.
Clinton’s trip to Asia — her first foreign trip as secretary of state — starting with Japan and including Indonesia, South Korea and China, sought to restore some balance to a China-obsessed US perspective.
Japan is the US’ most important security ally in the region, yet China got the most attention from the Bush administration. In other words, Japan felt slighted by its more powerful ally.
By making Japan her first port of call, Clinton sought to assuage hurt feelings. She symbolically restored Japan’s place of pride as the US’ most important security partner in Asia.
And by visiting the families of some of the Japanese abducted by North Korea and listening to their stories, Clinton showed sufficient sensitivity for the continued trauma of those grieving for missing relatives.
Clinton’s Indonesia visit was part of the same initiative, but this time intended to focus on Southeast Asia. This part of Asia was neglected under Bush even more than the Asia-Pacific rim. It sometimes seemed the US was in the process of withdrawing from the region, with China increasingly filling the vacuum.
As a result, countries in the region have increasingly adapted themselves to China’s power role.
Indonesia is the most populous member of ASEAN and Clinton announced in Jakarta that the US would soon begin the process of signing an agreement with ASEAN.
As for South Korea, the US’ commitment goes back to the Korean War in the 1950s. South Korea depends on the US for its security from North Korea.
The latter is dependent on China for political and economic support, though Beijing is not inclined to support its provocative and dangerous nuclear program.
Therefore, North Korea casts a large shadow on any visit by a US leader to South Korea. For both the US and South Korea, Pyongyang’s nuclear program is a major worry.
Pyongyang’s expected test of a long-range missile that would be capable of reaching parts of the US compounds their concerns.
However, Clinton’s tone on the nuclear question was softer, suggesting that the US will help North Korea with economic aid and in other ways in return for a verifiable commitment toward non-proliferation by Pyongyang.
When she was in Seoul, Clinton raised the question of uncertainty created by a likely succession battle in North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly suffered a stroke, although he is believed to have recovered sufficiently to carry on much of his duties.
Clinton said “there is a succession, even if it’s a peaceful succession, that creates more uncertainty, and it may also encourage behaviors that are even more provocative, as a way to consolidate power within the society.”
Expressing understanding for South Korea’s predicament, she said: “This is an especially important time for South Korea, as they are confronting a lot of worries about what’s up in North Korea, what the succession could be, what it means for them.”
“North Korea is on China’s border and I want to understand better what the Chinese believe is doable,” she said.
It would suggest that while the six-party forum for talks on North Korea’s nuclear program will remain the vehicle for formal discussions, the US will lean more on China to put pressure on Pyongyang to achieve real progress. China will remain an important instrument of the US’ North Korea policy.
Clinton, as a former US first lady, senator and Democratic Party presidential contender, is familiar with the main issues in Sino-US relations.
She said in Beijing before official talks that she would raise familiar issues with Chinese officials, such as human rights in Tibet, while she expected Beijing to bring up US arms sales to Taiwan.
“We know what they‘re going to say because I have had those conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders,” she said.
Clinton thus took the mystery out of her talks with Chinese leaders and the talks were more or less as expected.
An important difference was that Clinton, who championed women’s rights and other rights issues at the Beijing women’s conference in 1995, said that she would not let human rights derail progress on issues such as climate change, the global economic crisis and US security concerns.
This suggested that the US would soft-pedal the issue of human rights violations in China and disappointed human rights campaigners.
From Beijing’s viewpoint, though, China has no human rights problems. As Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎) said, the “smiling faces” of Chinese attest to the country’s respect for human rights.
By living in a world of make-believe, however, Beijing risks a rude awakening one day when the situation blows up in its face.
Reports are frequent of protests across China in response to rising unemployment and social and political marginalization.
But that is a different story.
The centerpiece of Clinton’s approach seemed to be to avoid airing controversial issues in public and to focus on the overarching themes of climate change and the global economic crisis. Her tone was soft.
On climate change, for instance, Clinton said in Beijing that she hoped China would not “make the same mistakes” the US did during industrialization.
“When we were industrializing and growing, we didn’t know any better; neither did Europe,” she said.
The point is that China and the US are in it together.
As for the global economic crisis, China needs the US to start buying its products to restart its industries and generate jobs.
The US needs China to keep buying its Treasury notes to help it stimulate its economy.
Clinton thanked Yang for China’s “continued confidence” in the US, as the largest foreign buyer of US Treasury securities.
The overarching themes of climate change and economic recovery should enable the two countries to rise above certain political controversies.
The problems start, however, when broad themes lead to specifics, such as the question of the trade imbalance to the US’ disadvantage, which leads to the controversial issue of Chinese “manipulation” of the yuan to give them an unfair trade advantage.
Similarly, in dealing with climate change, the question of mandatory emissions caps will be difficult.
Clinton’s Asia visit was a positive exploratory exercise, but much will depend on how it is followed up.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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