MUCH OF the recent talk about a pivot of U.S. policy toward Asia has been framed in terms of military containment of China. The United States has announced plans to station about 60 percent of its naval forces in the Pacific, up from 50 percent today. U.S. Marines are being sent to Darwin on Australia’s northern coast. The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have cautiously welcomed the possible return of the United States to bases that were abandoned after the Vietnam War.
On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton injected a welcome new dimension into this shift. She said clearly that democracy matters, not only ships at sea. In an address in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, Ms. Clinton emphasized that democracy is “the heart of our strategy” and vital to Asia’s future.
Although she never mentioned China, Ms. Clinton warned that China’s model of authoritarian capitalism cannot be sustained, and she beckoned other nations to take a different path. In so doing, Ms. Clinton confronted a spurious notion that China’s system of political repression and souped-up economic growth offers a viable alternative for some developing nations. It will not work, she declared: “You cannot over the long run have economic liberalization without political liberalization.”
Ms. Clinton also tackled another long-standing shibboleth often voiced by China’s leaders: that their monopoly on power preserves some kind of social stability. By clamping down on what people read, say and see, Mrs. Clinton insisted, the leaders create an illusion of stability, but it will eventually fade, while the yearning for liberty does not.
It has long been a favorite argument of autocrats that people in a certain culture or region are just not suited for democracy. Ms. Clinton dispatched this canard as well, pointing to examples all around Asia of flourishing and nascent democracy, from India and Taiwan to the fragile opening in Burma (also known as Myanmar). The examples “stand in stark contrast to those governments that continue to resist reforms, that work around the clock to restrict people’s access to ideas and information, to imprison them for expressing their views, to usurp the rights of citizens to chose their leaders, to govern without accountability, to corrupt the economic progress of the country and take the riches onto themselves.”
The West’s relationship with China is based on both rivalry and dependence, and nations in China’s shadow have their own imperatives and pressures to deal with. Ms. Clinton’s address offers hope that the U.S. pivot to Asia will go beyond simple muscle-flexing and become a multi-layered approach to match the complexity of China’s rise as a modern superpower.