“You hear this everywhere in Asia now, not just about what will come after these guys but whether U.S. presence will persevere and how that presence will be directed,” said Christopher Johnson, a former top China analyst for the CIA who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
When it comes to China, much of the U.S. struggle for the past four years has been with a Goldilocks-type conundrum: how to continue strengthening partnerships with other Asian nations without angering the Chinese or prompting accusations of interference.
“It’s a careful balance you’re juggling at all times,” said a former Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
Many countries in the region, uneasy with China’s growing economic and military clout, have clamored for an increased U.S. presence in Asia. U.S. officials have tried hard to project such an increase in the past year with their new policy of “pivoting,” or “rebalancing,” American focus from the Middle East.
At the same time, they have tried to convince the Chinese government that the increased presence is not an attempt to contain China’s rise.
Those attempts have not entirely been successful, as was made clear in blistering editorials and stories in China’s state-run media ahead of Clinton’s one-night visit.
One report claimed that the Chinese people dislike Clinton personally. Another called her “a person who deeply reinforces U.S.-China mutual suspicion.” And a column published by China’s official news agency called the United States a “sneaky troublemaker sitting behind some nations in the region and pulling strings.”
Among the thorniest topics Clinton will have to tackle in meetings Wednesday are various territorial disputes that have become flash points between China and its neighbors.
On the South China Sea especially, China has been the most aggressive actor, claiming almost the entire disputed area and threatening other claimants diplomatically, economically and militarily.
China has insisted that disputes be handled in a series of bilateral negotiations rather than collectively — a one-on-one approach that would give China a hulking advantage.
Without naming China outright during an appearance in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Monday, Clinton said that all nations in the region “should work collaboratively together to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats — and certainly without the use of force.”