By Li Hongmei, Special to Sina English
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived here Tuesday for what may be her last and much capsule visit to China - and a final opportunity to explain and reinforce the Obama administration’s complex approach to the Sino-U.S. 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 and worldwide will have to ask a question: What’s her intention behind the “surprise visit”？
Moreover, when it comes to Asia, people would not just concern about what will happen next, but whether U.S. presence will persevere and how that presence will be directed.
Unite south-east Asia against China?
The US's bid to turn south-east Asian states into Lilliputians tackling China's Gulliver is simplistic and will obscure other issues.
In Washington's favoured scenario, China becomes a sort of Gulliver-style giant held down and tied in place by feisty multitudes of tiny Lilliputians. What the state department may have forgotten is that, in Jonathan Swift's tale, Gulliver and his undersized captors reach an uneasy accommodation, then fall out violently.
To the US dismay, the last Asean summit, held in Phnom Penh in July, ended in unprecedented confusion after member governments failed to agree a final communique.
Now attention is switching to the next Asean summit in Phnom Penh in November. During a meeting in the Cook Islands on Friday with leaders of South Pacific island nations, Clinton pledged to continue helping to maintain security in the region and to protect the flow of maritime commerce.
Some progress has been made on an agreement between Asean and China on a "code of conduct" for managing territorial disputes before they become flashpoints. But Beijing continues to want to deal with such issues bilaterally, while the US believes the Asean countries will be more able to stand up for themselves if they act collectively in multilateral forums.
"The most important thing is that we end up in a diplomatic process where these issues are addressed in a strong diplomatic conversation between a unified Asean and China rather than through any kind of coercion," a senior Clinton official said.
The U.S. involvement or sometimes blunt meddling has deepened since Barack Obama decided last year to switch attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region as American commitments in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Europe ebbed.
Clinton’s China visit a balancing act?
As to China, much of the U.S. struggle for the past four years has been with a sort of conundrum: how to continue strengthening partnerships with other Asian nations without angering the Chinese or prompting accusations of interference.
Many countries in the region, uneasy with China’s growing influence, have clamored for an increased U.S. presence in Asia. The 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 China that the increased presence is not an attempt to contain China’s rise.
To avoid being described as a sneaky troublemaker sitting behind some nations in the region and pulling strings, Clinton will have to tackle quite a few thorniest topics in meetings Wednesday with the Chinese leadership, in a subtle way, or exercising “soft power” as she herself prefers to call. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea have become flash points between China and some of Washington’s allies.
China has insisted that disputes be handled in a series of bilateral negotiations rather than collectively - a one-on-one approach that the U.S. and its allies believe would give China some 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.”
Clinton’s “sudden visit” might well be viewed as an important chance to compare notes with the Chinese side before her tenure ends.
But the unease remains, sharpened by the disputes in the South and East China Seas, which have rattled nerves across the region and led to testy exchanges with Washington, as the Obama administration "pivots" to the Asia-Pacific region following years of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Washington’s strategic ambiguity in its position on the regional issues.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei suggested at a daily news briefing that Washington was not a helpful force in the maritime disputes.
"We have noted that the United States has stated many times that it does not take sides," he said when asked about the American role. "We hope that the United States will abide by its promises and do more that is beneficial to regional peace and stability, and not the opposite."