Hillary Clinton landed in the Cook Islands on August 31, becoming the first US secretary of state ever to attend the Pacific Islands Forum. That Clinton, one of the world’s top dignitaries, took time to stop at a gathering of tiny island nations signaled the growing importance of the region to US foreign policy.
Her tour swept through six Asia-Pacific countries in 10 days in a final effort to promote stability in the region prior to presidential election in November, which will likely coincide with China’s leadership transition.
Clinton’s numerous speeches made it clear the focus of the trip was China. She particularly urged Beijing to join multilateral negotiations to resolve the conflict over the South China Sea. This summer, tensions have risen in the sea – claimed in part by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan – with standoffs between the boats of Chinese and rival claimants sparking diplomatic rows.
At her stop in Indonesia, Clinton told reporters that regional powers should collaborate “without intimidation and certainly without the use of force.” The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China should jointly formulate a code of conduct for peacefully resolving disputes in the sea, she said.
Those seemingly uncontroversial remarks were nevertheless enough to set off a backlash in China, which prefers to negotiate in one-on-one talks with each claimant. English-language state media set to chattering about the US meddling in regional affairs less than a day before Clinton arrived in Beijing. “The US politicians, who preposterously fancy they could do gold-digging in China and rein in China’s rise simultaneously, should remember the old saying that no one can have his cake and eat it too,” one Xinhua editorial read.
Against that backdrop, it is unsurprising that Clinton and China made little progress during her two-day stay in Beijing on resolving tensions in the South China Sea.
Clinton’s push for multilateral negotiations in the South China Sea virtually guaranteed no progress would be made. A united ASEAN would be in a far stronger position to bargain with China than any individual member state. But China, seeking to exercise its newfound clout, is unwilling to negotiate at all under those terms.
China demonstrated its preference for no resolution rather than a multi-party resolution in July at the ASEAN Summit, when it used its influence with host nation Cambodia to ensure the South China Sea conflict would not be discussed. For the first time in its history, the summit did not issue a joint communiqué.
Although such a stalemate may seem undesirable, gridlock may be the best way to preserve stability. Clinton’s visit, as well as her previous remarks and the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia earlier this year, have indeed made it more difficult for China to exercise its clout unchecked.
“The Pacific is big enough for all of us,” Clinton said in the Cook Islands. That’s certainly true of the physical ocean, but once the US has squeezed into the crowded diplomatic space of the region, little room is left for any side to make waves.