At the end of 2009, President Obama was weathering criticism for his excessively deferential approach to China and his shortsighted neglect of India. At the end of 2010, his administration deserves much credit for toughening its stance toward Beijing, affirming its commitment to a robust strategic partnership with New Delhi, and boosting America’s security posture across the region.
Three U.S. officials deserve particular recognition: Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and Kurt Campbell, the last of whom is Foggy Bottom’s top diplomat for East Asia and the Pacific. Without much domestic fanfare, they have been working aggressively to counter Chinese influence and promote what George W. Bush once called “a balance of power that favors freedom.”
Indeed, over the past seven months, Team Obama has (1) established a new defense framework with Indonesia; (2) announced the resumption of military exchanges with the Indonesian special forces; (3) led multinational peacekeeping exercises in Cambodia; (4) conducted the first joint U.S.-Vietnam military drills since the 1975 fall of Saigon; (5) launched a high-level defense dialogue with the Vietnamese government; (6) obtained membership in the East Asia Summit; (7) tightened financial sanctions against North Korea; (8) bolstered the U.S. alliance with South Korea — and sent a blunt message to Pyongyang and Beijing — through a series of large-scale war games; (9) completed (albeit after much unnecessary haggling) a U.S.-Korea free-trade deal; (10) formalized a new strategic partnership with New Zealand; (11) expanded defense cooperation with Australia; (12) signed a raft of bilateral economic agreements with India while also relaxing curbs on U.S. high-tech exports to the South Asian giant; (13) endorsed a permanent Indian seat on the United Nations Security Council; and (14) held trilateral talks with Tokyo and Seoul.
When it comes to Asian alliance management, Hillary has been superb. I recently chatted with two former Bush-administration Asia hands — both hawkish conservatives — who lavished praise on Clinton for her stewardship of U.S. diplomacy in the Far East. One of them had previously told me that Hillary’s July 2009 speech to the ASEAN Regional Forum (delivered just two months after Pyongyang’s second nuclear test) was “the best statement on North Korea strategy in the past 20 years.”
Addressing that same forum in July 2010, Clinton characterized the ongoing South China Sea territorial disputes as a matter of U.S. national interest and urged a peaceful, multilateral resolution in accordance with international law. Her remarks were greatly appreciated by the ASEAN countries (especially Vietnam) — which have grown tired of frequent Chinese bullying — but they triggered howls of outrage in Beijing, which considers virtually the entire body of water to be its own sovereign jurisdiction. More recently, after a Sino-Japanese maritime incident near the Senkaku Islands (located in the East China Sea and claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo), Clinton angered the Chinese by assuring Japanese foreign minster Seiji Maehara that the Senkakus were protected under the 1960 U.S.-Japan defense treaty. She reiterated that pledge during her October 27 press conference with Maehara in Honolulu. As an Economist correspondent noted, “This drove Chinese diplomats slightly up the wall.”
To be sure, Hillary has sought to deepen U.S. engagement with China on a wide range of issues, but she has also pursued a vigorous campaign to strengthen American relations with other Asia-Pacific countries, including both longtime allies (Japan, South Korea, Australia) and emerging powers (India, Vietnam, Indonesia). This, essentially, was the Bush strategy. On North Korea, the Obama administration has actually been “more hardline, more conditional, more neoconservative than Bush was during the last four years of his term,” former CIA analyst Bruce Klinger said recently.
Repeated North Korean and Chinese provocations have obviously made it easier for Hillary & Co. to enhance U.S. partnerships throughout the region. But Clinton should be applauded for her diplomatic spadework, which reflects a tough-minded realism. “Much of the history of the 21st century will be written in Asia,” she declared on October 28. All the more reason to commend her achievements.