BEIJING — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived here Tuesday for what may be her last significant visit to China — and a final opportunity to explain and reinforce the Obama administration’s complex approach to the U.S.-Sino relationship.
Throughout her tenure, Clinton has been one of the principal forces shaping and carrying out the administration’s sometimes controversial Asia policy. And with the looming presidential election and Clinton’s planned departure afterward, leaders throughout the region have been asking one key question: What happens next?
“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.”
She pledged to bring the issue up during her Beijing visit.
That collaborative approach has been a centerpiece of the Asia strategy adopted by the Obama administration, which has worked in recent years to build up a web of Asian alliances. But it remains to be seen whether the effort will pay off long-term.
Almost since the beginning of the administration, Obama officials have tried to nurture regional institutions to strengthen the collective backbone of Asian countries affected by China.
Early on, the administration identified the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN) as one of the key gatherings through which they could build involvement.
In 2010, the United States established its first embassy to ASEAN, in Indonesia. The next year, Obama attended an ASEAN summit, making him the first U.S. president to do so. He has made a point of meeting with the leaders of each country in the association at least once a year.
But the most recent ASEAN meeting exposed signs of a serious rift among Southeast Asian countries over how to cope with China’s clout. For the first time since the group was founded in 1967, foreign ministers could not agree on a final communique to end their meeting. The main sticking point: China’s close ally, Cambodia, refusing to allow any mention of the South China Sea issue.
The relationship between Japan and South Korea — the United States’ strongest Asian allies — also is showing signs of fraying. U.S. officials had invested much time and diplomatic energy trying to set up a trilateral relationship among the three countries to increase military- and data-sharing, particularly given their concerns about North Korea and China.
But a growing territorial feud over a cluster of rocky islands, as well as resurgent historic bitterness, has left South Korea and Japan barely able to talk with each other. The trilateral idea is in shambles.
So far, Clinton has spent much of her Asian trip reassuring allies in the region that the U.S. pivot to Asia is substantive and lasting. But now, in China, she faces an equally vexing problem of explaining to Beijing that those U.S. initiatives are benign and not aimed at China. It is a challenge that she has faced for nearly four years and one that her successors are likely to face for years to come.