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Hillary’s Strained Swan Song in China

by PETER LEE

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently paid what is expected to be her final official visit to Beijing. She received a stern reception from Chinese officialdom, including the official media, and also suffered what appears to have been a personal rebuke.

Clinton’s press entourage was abuzz concerning the cancellation of a meeting with Chinese president-in-waiting Xi Jinping.

Of course, it is possible that the excuses that circulated through the press corps – that Xi had a scheduling conflict and/or a bad  back – were the truth. Xi also canceled a meeting with the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong. [1] However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may have decided that Clinton’s last visit was the final and most appropriate opportunity to administer a snub – and a message.

Per her position as secretary of state, Clinton is entitled to meet with her opposite number in Beijing, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. However, because of a variety of circumstances both historical (the importance of the relationship between the United States and China, Clinton’s special status as spouse of a former US president) and immediate (the fraught current state of Sino-US relations, the fact that this is probably Clinton’s last official visit to China), she also met with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

From an official perspective, there are no grounds for Clinton to feel snubbed on this trip, and also from an official perspective, there are no grounds for Clinton to meet with Xi Jinping. After all, Clinton and her team are on the way out, regardless of whether President Barack Obama wins re-election or is replaced in the White House by Mitt Romney.

Xi Jinping, on the other hand, is not yet in the office of president of China. That is still Hu Jintao’s job. Perhaps Hu did not take pleasure in the idea that the United States was going around him to cultivate relations with Xi before Hu had vacated his presidential chair.

Possibly, the Chinese leadership also felt that Clinton wanted to meet with Xi to pad her Rolodex so she can claim that she has guanxi to burn with the new generation of China’s leaders as she embarks on her post-secretary of state career as politician, pundit, think-tank leader, and/or corporate adviser.

If so, the CCP could have used cancellation of the meeting with Xi to send a message (to paraphrase the immortal smackdown of Dan Quayle by the late US senator Lloyd Bentsen during a vice-presidential debate many years ago): “I knew Henry Kissinger … And, Secretary Clinton, you are no Henry Kissinger.”

Actually, Xi Jinping does know Henry Kissinger (who is, by the way, still alive) and has met him more than once. Xi met with Kissinger and a host of other retired US State Department worthies during his trip to the United States in February. But he also met with him one-on-one in Beijing several weeks before his trip to send the message that China was ready to “seize the day, seize the hour”, to promote bilateral ties. [2]

The CCP leadership value Kissinger as the symbol, custodian and advocate of a US-China relationship that is special.

When relations between the Chinese leadership and President Obama teetered into the deep freeze after the disastrous Copenhagen climate summit (which featured China’s furious negotiator screaming and waving his finger at Obama for what Beijing perceived to be the cynical US decision to use it as a scapegoat for the collapse of the talks), China publicized a meeting between then-vice-president Li Keqiang (the title that Xi holds now, by the way) and Kissinger in Beijing to demonstrate that China wanted to continue relations in a spirit of positive engagement. [3]

However, Obama decided for political, economic, moral and geo-strategic reasons (and perhaps also because of his unsatisfying personal interactions with the Chinese leadership cadre) that he had to deal with Beijing from a position of greater regional strength and eschew immediate accommodation.

The rest is history, specifically the strategic pivot to Asia, executed by Clinton.

China’s relationship with the United States is now special only in the sense that it is especially awkward and difficult. The closest Beijing probably has to a US champion of a special relationship with China today is Robert Zoellick, the ex-head of the World Bank who now serves as an adviser to Mitt Romney.

From Beijing’s perspective, the pivot has done little other than make trouble for China, specifically by emboldening US allies in the region to make trouble over maritime issues.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines passed maritime laws to formalize their challenges to Chinese claims to rocks and shoals in the South China Sea. The Japanese government, goaded by Tokyo governor and sinophobic hothead Shintaro Ishihara, is taking steps to buy the Senkakus from their private owner.

The United States danced around the issue of whether or not it would back up security guarantees with the Philippines and Japan on island issues in a rather equivocal manner.

And Washington further upped the ante by promoting the line that the South China Sea disputes should be addressed in negotiations between Beijing and the various claimants collectively through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, instead of through bilateral talks between China and its smaller adversaries.

This situation pleases fans of interminable multilateral jaw-jaw, although a case can be made that the best way actually to settle claims is for Beijing to cut joint development deals with its neighbors one-by-one to unlock in a reasonably timely manner the immense riches we are told lurk below these miserable islands.

In the run-up to Clinton’s visit – and a spate of ugly demonstrations (not suppressed with notable vigor by the Chinese government) and incidents such as the snatching of the flag from the Japanese ambassador’s official vehicle on one of the Beijing ring roads (presumably a thuggish one-off by a Chinese citizen) – the government clearly took the tack that it was time to tell the United States that enough was enough and it was time for Washington back up its rhetoric as guarantor of security in China’s neighboring seas by reining in its overenthusiastic allies in Hanoi, Manila and Tokyo.

Xinhua laid out the case in a story datelined from Washington:

Many of the US actions so far have been counterproductive to promoting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, as indicated by the fact that the security situation in the region has been worsening, rather than improving, mainly due to the recent escalation of the territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

Washington, which claims not to take sides in the disputes, is partly blamed for fueling the tensions because it has apparently emboldened certain relevant parties to make provocations against China in order to achieve undeserved territorial gains …

Washington owes Beijing a thorough, convincing explanation of the true intentions of its pivot policy, especially on issues related to China’s vital or core interests. And the United States also needs to take concrete steps to prove that it is returning to Asia as a peacemaker, instead of a troublemaker. [4]

Clinton’s visit was marked by a blizzard of articles in the official media on this theme:

“China urges US to work for peace in South China Sea” [5]

“Washington needs to take concrete steps to promote China-US ties” [6]

“US owes China convincing explanation of true intentions of its Asia Pivot policy” [7]

“Commentary: US should refrain from sending wrong signals over South China Sea” [8]

That is all Xinhua, starting to sound a lot like nationalist head-knocker Global Times. Global Times, well, sounded just like Global Times:

“No winners in containment strategies” [9]

“Hillary reinforces US-China mistrust” [10]

Beijing has a right to wonder whether US infatuation with the pivot – and poking China in the eye – is matched with a responsible stewardship of its real security responsibilities in East Asia.

For the Chinese leadership, the true indicator of the sincerity and utility of the US security role in East Asia is probably the amount of influence Washington can bring to bear on Tokyo on its military and security agenda in general and on the symbolic issue of the Senkakus.

There is one compelling reason for Beijing to acquiesce to the continued US military presence in East Asia: That is if the United States can forestall the emergence of Japan as an independent, nuclear-capable regional military and security actor.

Thanks to US support of its demands for a closed nuclear-fuel cycle and an otherwise unnecessary space program, Japan has the reserves of weapon-grade plutonium and the ballistic-missile delivery systems to become a major nuclear weapons power virtually overnight. In an interesting analysis, The Associated Press reviewed the evidence that Iran has perhaps studied and copied the Japanese strategy of positioning itself as a nuclear-weapons threshold state – one without nuclear weapons but with the resources to weaponize its nuclear capabilities rapidly if needed.

By forestalling a nuclear-tinged regional arms race and keeping the Japan Self-Defense Forces preoccupied with self-defense instead of power projection, the United States delivers a real and significant security and economic benefit to China, and to East Asia in general. [11]

But the elevation of the Senkakus to a political, cultural and security fetish is helping change that.

So far, Japan’s national governments, thanks to US suasion, incentives, and the security provided by the presence of US forces, have kept the military genie in the bottle.

Currently, the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has conducted its demeaning competition with Ishihara to purchase the Senkakus with a combination of restraint, frustration and disgust that the Chinese leadership probably finds very gratifying – despite its public fulminations.

However, past results are no guarantee of future performance.

If Tokyo slips the leash or, even worse, decides that it can yank America’s chain in the style of the Israeli government by forcing the US to support Japan and its objectives in the region through deliberate escalation of tensions, the perceived utility and value of the US military role in East Asia will be significantly compromised in China’s eyes.

In May, The Wall Street Journal reported on the relatively extreme security views of Shintaro Ishihara, the Tokyo governor who began the whole Senkaku-purchase brouhaha:

Japan must guard itself from China’s expansionary ambitions, which, Mr Ishihara said, are now turned outward after conquering Mongolia and the Uighur people and decimating Tibet … “China has declared it would break into someone else’s home. It’s time we make sure doors are properly locked on our islands,” he said. “Before we know it, Japan could become the sixth star on China’s national flag. I really don’t want that to happen” …

Throughout the speech, Mr Ishihara referred to China as “Shina”, the name normally associated with the era of Japanese occupation of China. [12]

Ishihara also advocated beefed-up Japanese military spending justified in part because the US is “unreliable” at least on the issue of the Senkakus.

It would be comforting to dismiss Ishihara as an aging, racist crackpot. However, as Japan’s wartime generation and mindset fade away, political pressure for the country to assume the role of an armed world power with its own security policy – and stand up to China – is growing.

And Ishihara has gone the extra mile in passing on his xenophobic legacy to the next generation, via his son Nobuteru.

One theory is that Ishihara ginned up the Senkaku purchase to advance the political fortunes of Nobuteru, who is secretary general of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and has an extremely good chance of becoming Japan’s next prime minister if the requisite amount of intra-party and inter-party skulduggery can be brought to bear. [13]

The prospect that the Japanese government and foreign and military policy may soon be in the hands of a group of China-bashing reactionaries – and the US government in the hands of China-bashing neo-liberals or neo-conservatives indifferent to Chinese anxieties – is not a recipe for Chinese restraint.

The harsh official Chinese rhetoric concerning the pivot is perhaps more than a farewell rebuke to Secretary Clinton. It should be regarded as an effort to cut through the China-bashing clutter of the US presidential campaign with a strident and unambiguous declaration of Beijing’s concern that infatuation with the pivot has caused the United States to lose its focus on the critical regional priority of encouraging restraint among all its allies, but most of all Japan.

Fans of the pivot – and advisers to whatever president takes the oath of office in Washington early next year – may wish to start thinking about the worst case if China’s new leadership thinks it has to escalate to confrontation sooner rather than later so it can either force US Asian policy on to a track more favorable to China or start crowding US military power out of the region before it’s too late.

One piece of advice: If a crisis erupts – and the United States genuinely wants to resolve it – maybe it is better not to send Hillary Clinton to Beijing.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org

Notes:

1. China’s Xi Jinping cancels Hillary Clinton meeting amid ‘tensions’, The Telegraph, Sep 5, 2012.
2. China’s Xi says to push forward Sino-US cooperationGov.cn, Jan 17, 2012.
3. China: Emboldened? Anxious? Or Invincible Zombie Masters?, China Matter, Mar 16, 2010.
4. US owes China convincing explanation of true intentions of its Asia Pivot policy, Xinhua, Sep 3, 2012.
5. China urges US to work for peace in South China Sea, Xinhua, Sep 4, 2012.
6. Washington needs to take concrete steps to promote China-US ties, Xinhua, Sep 4, 2012.
7. US owes China convincing explanation of true intentions of its Asia Pivot policy, Xinhua, Sep 3, 2012.
8. Commentary: US should refrain from sending wrong signals over South China Sea, Xinhua, Aug 5, 2012.
9. No winners in containment strategies, Global Times, Sep 6, 2012.
10. Hillary reinforces US-China mistrust, Global Times, Sep 4, 2012.
11. Iran nuclear denial has Japanese ring, Columbia Broadcasting System, Sep 1, 2012.
12. Ishihara Unplugged: China A ‘Thief,’ America ‘Unreliable’, Japan Realtime, May 29, 2012.
13. Ishihara seen as strong contender in LDP race, Yomiuri, Sep 5, 2012.

A version of this essay appeared in Asia Times.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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