At a gathering of business executives in Cambodia this week, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to urge the expansion of US trade and investment across Asia, particularly in Southeast Asian nations on the periphery of China.
It has become more common these days for the US’ chief diplomat to play a role as a business booster, but the extra attention devoted to economics is intended to send a message that Washington recognizes that it initially overemphasized the military component of its new focus on Asia, setting up more of a confrontation with China than some countries felt comfortable with.
“There’s a nervousness that the two of them shouldn’t get into a fight,” said a senior Southeast Asian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity according to protocol.
“No one wants to choose sides” between China and the US, he said.
Indeed, both sides have an interest in channeling their rivalry into trade more than weaponry, even as it is clear that China sees itself as increasingly having the upper hand in the region.
“China is the biggest trading partner of ASEAN, Japan, Korea, India and Australia,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai (崔天凱) said in a speech in Hong Kong at the Asia Society on Thursday last week, “and the biggest source of investment for many countries in the region.”
Cui, while speaking broadly about the need for “sound interaction” between the US and China, took subtle aim at the administration of US President Barack Obama, which often emphasizes the role of the US as a Pacific region power.
“For China, an Asian country located on the Pacific coast, the Asia-Pacific is our home and our root,” Cui said
Clinton was in Tokyo on Sunday last week for a meeting of multinational donors that raised billions of US dollars for Afghanistan’s post-2014 civilian government. However, much of the rest of her trip in Asia this week focused on building economic ties to the fast-growing nations of Southeast Asia that are becoming increasingly bound by trade with China.
She plans to visit Cambodia to participate in a meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers, which began yesterday and runs until tomorrow.
She visited Vietnam on Tuesday for an American Chamber of Commerce event, and yesterday was in Laos, which has not received a US secretary of state since 1955, when John Foster Dulles visited the newly independent country.
That was another era. Dulles’ mission — his plane landed on a World War II steel mat runway only after buffalo were chased away — was to coax Laos into the anti-communist camp in the Cold War. Clinton’s purpose, though unstated, will be to encourage Laos, now largely supported by Beijing, to see the US as much of a friend as it does China.
Clinton is popular in Asia, in part because she shows up. In China and Singapore, she is seen as a powerful presidential contender in 2016. Wherever she goes, she will try to repair the impression that the Obama administration, in turning its attention to shoring up US military prowess with new weaponry and expanded agreements with Asian allies, is devoting itself to a strategy of containing the growing Chinese military at the expense of integrating Beijing into the global economic order.
The decision by the US Pacific Command not to invite China to a major US naval exercise off Hawaii last month that included Russia and India, China’s regional rivals, stung even some pro-American policymakers in China who saw it as further evidence of a deliberate containment policy.