Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Hillary vs. China

Throwing your weight around is a time-honored tool in the diplomatic toolbox. Some circumstances call for it, but in others, it is cringe-inducingly inappropriate. With an oddly overt poke in China’s eye at the Asean conference this week, the Obama administration has unfortunately chosen to engage in weight-throwing under the latter conditions.

Almost every relevant headline in the mainstream media is some variation on that of the New York Times: “U.S. Challenges China on Island Chain.” Hillary Clinton, speaking at an Asean meeting in Hanoi, reportedly “said [the U.S. was] ready to step into a tangled dispute between China and its smaller Asian neighbors over a string of strategically sensitive islands in the South China Sea.” The islands in question make up the Spratly archipelago, claims to which confer tremendous undersea mineral resources on those who can enforce them. Clinton properly identified the U.S. interest as relating to freedom of navigation for world shipping, but her method of offering U.S. intervention in the regional dispute – one that China calls a “core interest” of its own national security – could hardly have been less diplomatic.

Nor could the timing have been worse. As Jillian wrote yesterday, the U.S. and South Korea are launching a naval exercise series that is planned to involve major operations in the Yellow Sea, obviously a sensitive area for Beijing. (The Chinese were unamused by USS George Washington’s foray into the Yellow Sea in October 2009, as discussed here.) Moreover, Bloomberg reports that the American delegation to the Asean conference got some very pointed additional business done on the side, inaugurating discussions on military cooperation with conference host Vietnam and restoring ties between the special forces of the U.S. and Indonesian militaries. Both nations border the South China Sea and have island claims in competition with China’s.

The point here is not that the U.S. doesn’t have a security interest in the South China Sea, nor is it that we can’t play a constructive role in fostering a peaceful and equitable settlement of the Spratly Islands dispute. But an offer of mediation is a departure from our decades-old policy of tacitly enforcing regional stability and promoting our own primary interest – freedom of maritime navigation – while respecting the sovereign concerns of the Spratly claimants as a matter for them to work out among themselves. This week’s policy departure has the appearance of being blurted out without prior diplomatic spade work.

Such an Obama initiative, introduced less pointedly and with less of the appearance of challenging China, might well have achieved a productive effect. We do want all the nations of the region to know that the U.S. will act to prevent the imbalance of power that China tends to seek. But conveying that quietly, through dedicated military presence and assiduous bilateral diplomacy – and without dramatic announcements and provocative headlines – is worth every minute of the tongue-biting patience necessary to operating with greater foresight. There is no strategic payoff from issuing gratuitous and public challenges to China, which is what the Obama administration has effectively done.



Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »





Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.