Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has managed to time her trip to Asia perfectly; she’s left the continent during the Democratic Convention. She has several very good reasons for leaving right at this point although some might have been surprised at the timing. Earlier this week, Secretary Clinton attended the Pacific Island Forum on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands with the head of the Pacific Command, Admiral Locklear. While attending the Forum, Clinton and Locklear announced continuing U.S. development aid for the Pacific region along with assistance combating trafficking and illegal fishing.
There are several reasons for attending the Forum and for visiting, among others, China, Indonesia and Russia. But one reason stands out: China. Not only does China hold most of the U.S. debt, they also are the superpower in Southeast Asia and are looking to expand their direct influence in that region. U.S. foreign policy toward China has been containment (similar to policy regarding the former Soviet Union) combined with a generally good trade relationship and a sometimes rocky military and political relationship (the Tian’anmen Square massacre, NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the collision of a U.S. spy plane with a Chinese fighter plane). The current dispute centers on (or uses as an excuse – your call), competing claims to a small island about 220 miles off the southern tip of China (20 miles beyond the UN sanctioned 200 mile territorial limits). China is planning on building a city and garrisoning a military unit on the island. Such a strategically valuable position would give China control over a wide area of the southeast Pacific, rich in oil and minerals, that is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.
The Obama administration has endorsed an ASEAN declaration of principles regarding the South China Sea and Clinton, speaking for the White House, has urged ASEAN “…members and China to make meaningful progress together toward finalizing a comprehensive ‘code of conduct’ to establish ‘clear procedures for peacefully addressing disagreements’.”
China, unsurprisingly, is not happy with U.S. actions and words regarding the Southeast Pacific region. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei noted “countries outside the region should respect the countries concerned and take a stance of non- intervention.” However, other countries in the region have voiced their approval of the U.S. stance; ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told Clinton that member nations consider the U.S. to be a “true friend.”
At the end of WWII, the U.S. created a number of economic and security obligations for itself. While many may wish those obligations did not exist, they do, and we as a nation must deal with what’s in front of us, not what we wish were there. In taking this path, President Obama is maintaining a foreign policy towards China that, while it has changed in the particulars, has not changed in the general attitude and ideas. Unlike the 19th century China, which preferred to stay isolated and out of world affairs, the 21st century China is taking an active interest in world affairs and is seeking influence and control through a variety of methods. Because of this and those pre-existing obligations, the U.S. will continue to have an influential role in the Pacific region.