By Li Hongmei, Special to Sina Englsih
The U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Beijing on Tuesday reportedly to continue talks on the South China Sea and other issues, including the crisis in Syria and ways to deal with Iran and the DPRK’s nuclear programs.
Clinton will be in China on the third stop of an 11-day, six-nation tour that will take her further to East Timor, Brunei and Russia's far east after her Beijing visit.
She wants "to strengthen ASEAN unity going forward", a senior U.S. official was quoted as saying before her departure.
Clinton’s current trip through the Asia-Pacific region has inevitably highlighted a series of regional frictions, ranging from the age-old territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, to a newly emerging battle for hearts and minds in the South Pacific. Clinton will spend Sept 4-5 in Beijing, meeting with senior Chinese officials including Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. This trip could be her last opportunity to discuss these tensions face to face with the Chinese leadership before the presidential elections in November.
Dueling claims in the South China Sea have polarized the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-member Southeast Asian regional bloc.
During a regular ASEAN meeting in July in Cambodia, the group failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in four and a half decades; Manila and Hanoi accused host Cambodia of caving to Chinese pressure aimed at keeping the South China Sea off the agenda.
Recent months have also seen an uptick in frictions between Beijing and Tokyo-a U.S. military ally-over the Diaoyu islands. And eyebrows were raised in Beijing when Clinton made an unusual trip to the tiny outpost of the Cook Islands with an entourage consisting of 60 delegation members and a U.S. aircraft carrier.
Such a high-profile display of American muscle in the South Pacific is inappropriate, said Jin Canrong, vice director of the School of international studies at Beijing’s Renmin University, in a recent Global Times op-ed entitled “Carrier not right envoy for South Pacific.”
Jin argued that “sending an aircraft carrier to the South Pacific reminds countries and regions there that the U.S. can offer them good protection. But this is not what they need…what they really need is investment and technology, something that the U.S. cannot offer. The U.S. is still a rich country but its hands are tied up by its own financial woes and it cannot possibly provide large sums of aid to the South Pacific….China, on the other hand, has the mechanisms to help its entrepreneurs find business opportunities there.”
Back in 2010, Obama administration declared it would recalibrate its strategy with a “pivot to Asia”, after a decade-long obsession with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ever since, Washington has been redirecting resources and readjusting policies, triggering jitters that America and China could be headed towards a new Cold War, as not a few observers believe the U.S. rebalance towards Asia is perceived as an attempt to contain China.
High on Clinton’s agenda this time will be something that has bearing on the South China Sea, where Beijing and a handful of its neighbors are entangled in territorial disputes, as she tends to believe that escalating maritime disputes have pitted China against American allies in the region.
China, still, would frown at the U.S. involvement in the regional disputes. Moreover, Washington has also repeatedly pledged not to take sides on the South China Sea issue. But, the lure to mark the U.S. presence in the region, and also to echo the need of its allies will draw the U.S. into the troubled water.
However, as a veteran politician, Hillary Clinton will also somewhat downplay the suggestion that the Asia-Pacific region, long a strategic backwater, is becoming a new focus for big-power rivalries. She said the U.S. welcomed the chance to work with China and other Pacific partners, such as Japan and the European Union, in the region.