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Foreign Policy

Better legacy from Clinton

Sep 02, 2012

US' China policy needs to be changed in the direction of increasing mutual trust and avoiding miscalculations

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just concluded her latest visit to China. It is also likely to be her last in her tenure as chief diplomat of Foggy Bottom under the Obama administration.

What is Clinton's legacy for Sino-US relations? As the chief US diplomat, she has helped President Barack Obama start the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, or S&ED, an initiative that has brought the two countries' talks to a level higher than that under the previous Senior Dialogue and Strategic Economic Dialogue. The S&ED has been an important institutional means of developing the partnership that exists between Beijing and Washington. The two countries have not only used an annual review of the S&ED to plan a whole spectrum of economic, trade, strategy and security issues, but have also taken to cooperating in a more evenhanded way.

Despite initiatives such as S&ED, China and the US still have found reasons to trust each other less – at least over three issues.

First, there are the US' perennial sales of weapons to Taiwan, which infringe on Beijing's interests every time they are made. The Obama administration continues to use the sales to put pressure on China. And Clinton, as the chief US diplomat, bears much of the blame for this.

Second, there has been the inability of both China and the US to talk clearly about China's sovereignty in the South China Sea. That has only given the countries more reason to suspect each other's intentions. Attempts to clear up these misunderstandings have resulted in the US' replacing the word "pivoting" with "rebalancing" in its statements about the Asia-Pacific and China's issuing a clearer statement about its having no intent to claim sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. But the damage has been done. Secretary Clinton's push for the use of the word "pivoting" has certainly eroded China's confidence in the US' desire to maintain stable relations between the countries.

Third, there is the fact that the US has shown partiality toward Japan in questions about the Diaoyu Islands – which the US has avoided saying are part of Japan's territory – while it cites the US-Japan Defense Treaty, an agreement that commits the US to defending Japanese territory. This clearly shows that some of the US' statements and actions are illegitimate. As both designer and practitioner of this policy, Clinton is responsible for China's greater distrust of the US' "leadership" in the Asia-Pacific.

Clinton's legacy is therefore a matter of controversy. True, she has worked hard to change the foreign policies the US pursued during the Bush administration.

Regrettably, though, Clinton has been highhanded in dealing with various matters that are important to Sino-US relations and regional stability. Her frequent undiplomatic stances are at odds with the essence of diplomacy. The US' foreign policy obviously needs to change from what it was under Bush; but it should also change from what it is this year.

More important than formal dialogues is the need to talk frankly and act cautiously. The South China Sea issue appears to not have come up frequently as a topic of discussion at the top level of the S&ED. Clinton seems to be fond of using multilateral coercive platforms that are neither truly diplomatic nor suited to dealing with this country on this issue.

As for the commitment to defending Japan over its interest in a non-Japanese territory, the Diaoyu Islands, here again the US Secretary of State has failed to understand her work as a diplomat.

The defense treaty with Japan only requires the US to defend Japanese territory. And Clinton, in her position as secretary of state, has no right to expand the scope of that treaty. Such a use of executive power could constitute a violation of the US Constitution.

China, for its part, will not allow its national integrity to be at the mercy of other countries. Beijing is merely seeking respect for its sovereignty and is determined to defeat aggression if Clinton is willing to leave a legacy that is an affront to her own country's constitution.

Shen Dingli is a professor and director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Reprinted from China Daily with Permission.

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