Clinton faces China balancing act

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a lecture at the University of the Western Cape on 8 August 2012. Picture: Regan Thaw/EWN

JAKARTA - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged to take a strong message to Beijing this week on the need to calm regional tensions over maritime disputes that have raised broader fears of military friction between the two major Pacific powers.

The last time Clinton visited Beijing, plans to highlight improving US-China ties were derailed by a blind Chinese dissident whose dramatic flight to the US embassy exposed the deeply uneasy relationship between Beijing and Washington.

This time, the irritants are disputes over tiny islets and craggy outcrops in oil- and gas-rich areas of the South and East China Seas that have set China against US regional allies.

As Clinton prepares to travel back to Beijing on Tuesday, US officials say the message is once again one of cooperation and partnership, and an important chance to compare notes during a tricky year of political transition.

But the unease remains, sharpened by disputes in the South and East China Seas that have rattled nerves across the region and led to testy exchanges with Washington just as the Obama administration "pivots" to the Asia-Pacific region following years of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both governments, too, are preoccupied with politics at home, with the Obama administration fighting for re-election in November and China's ruling Communist Party preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership change.


In Jakarta on Monday, Clinton urged China and its Southeast Asian neighbours to move quickly on a code of conduct for the South China Sea and stressed that disputes should be resolved "without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force".

But progress has been thwarted in recent months by China's increasingly assertive posture in the region, which has included establishing a garrison on a disputed island and stepping up patrols of contested waters.

That suggests Beijing has no intention of backing down on its unilateral claim to sovereignty over a huge stretch of ocean and potentially equally large energy reserves.

Political analysts say Clinton faces a balancing act, pushing on the territorial disputes while keeping cooperation on track on other issues including reining in the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes, the Syria crisis and economic disputes that have long bedevilled the two countries.

"One of the challenges before us is to demonstrate how we deal with areas in which we have different perceptions and where we face challenging issues on the ground, or in this case on the water," one senior US official said.

Beijing, for its part, is likely to repeat its opposition to a multilateral approach during Clinton's visit.

Asked about the issue on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that "countries outside the region should respect the choices of the countries concerned regarding the South China Sea issue".

Some Chinese media have been blunter still. The Global Times, a popular, nationalist tabloid, accused Clinton on Tuesday of "deeply intensifying mutual suspicion between China and the US"

"Many Chinese people dislike Hillary Clinton," it said in an editorial. "She has brought new and extremely profound mutual distrust between the mainstream societies of the two countries, and removing that will not be easy."