Event ReportsPublished on Feb 24, 2009
Hillary Clinton's altered agenda reflected the reshuffled priorities of the US in its dealings with China. Unlike in the past, Human Rights and Tibet did not figure prominently during the talks this time.
Who did Hillary Clinton meet during her East Asia tour?

Hillary Clinton’s 4-nation tour of East Asia, her first trip abroad since she assumed office as Secretary of State, is important and reflects the foreign policy orientation of USA’s new Obama Administration. The tour took her to Japan (Feb 16-18), Indonesia (Feb 18-19), South Korea (Feb 19-20) and the People’s Republic of China (Feb 20-22). The visit to Japan dispelled fears of some analysts that the US new Administration had decided to downgrade Japan’s importance. It concluded with a visit to China, the country perhaps among the most important to the US at this juncture.

As anticipated Hillary Clinton met the top echelon leaders including PRC President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing. The tour followed PRC Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Davos and his rare interview to the ‘Financial Times’ where he had taken the opportunity to respond to remarks by new US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

Hillary Clinton’s altered agenda reflected the reshuffled priorities of the US in its dealings with China. Unlike in the past, Human Rights and Tibet did not figure prominently during the talks this time. Hillary Clinton sought to justify this by stating that this conversation had taken place so often that both sides knew what the other would say and there was therefore no need to dwell on it! The global economy, climate change and security were the main issues.

The global economy featured in discussions with all the Chinese leaders. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, underlining China’s economic might, urged China to continue investing in US Treasury Bonds and assured that the Bonds remained a sound investment. She said that in the effort to revive its economy USA would have to incur more debt and that China’s support was important. She pointed out that the economies of USA and China are intertwined and emphasized that it was in China’s interest to see that the US economy did not collapse. The economies of both countries, she said, would sink or swim together. PRC Premier Wen Jiabao had, it might be recalled, said at Davos that while China would remain an active player in the US Treasury Bonds market it might shift its investment strategy later. He had also stressed that China would do what is necessary to maintain the balance in its currency. The latter was interpreted as a riposte to the US Treasury Secretary’s accusation that China was engaging in currency manipulation. Meanwhile, official data revealed that China’s holding of US Treasury Bonds had escalated now to above US$ 619 billion.

During discussions on security issues the focus was on Asia-Pacific regional challenges, global security and potential areas for expanding cooperation. Timed to coincide with the US Secretary of State’s visit to China,  Admiral Thomas Keating C-in-C of the US Pacific Command, remarked that America was keen on the resumption of mid-level military exchanges between the US and Chinese armed forces. Talks between senior US and Chinese officials to discuss the issue are scheduled for Feb 27-28, 2009 and resume after they were suspended in October 2008 to protest the sale of US$ 6.5 billion worth of arms by USA to Taiwan. Interestingly, the talks are scheduled for completion a day prior to the release of the US Defence Department’s Annual Report on China, which is expected to be critical of China’s high defence budget allocation and absence of transparency. Admiral Keating also commented favourably on the performance of the Chinese Navy in anti-piracy operations off Somalia in the Gulf of Aden and indicated there was scope for greater cooperation between the Chinese, US and other navies.

Taiwan figured prominently in the talks and there was suggestion of some forward movement on the subject. Hillary Clinton emphasized the role of diplomacy in settling the Taiwan dispute while Adm Keating, in an unusual move, separately but publicly offered to host talks between Chinese and Taiwanese military officials at his Headquarters in Hawaii. Official Chinese reaction was limited and did not touch on this novel aspect which comes amidst peace overtures by the new Taiwanese President.  Niu Xinchun of the Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations confined his remarks to asserting that continued US arms sales to Taiwan leaves open a possible area of friction.  The official English-language China Daily commented that Beijing is prepared to resume dialogue between senior military officials and that discussions would be kept informal.

Asia-Pacific regional challenges were not dilated upon in media comments, but there are indications that USA is now willing to accommodate Beijing in playing a larger role in the region and that Beijing is pushing for this. USA’s preoccupation with the economic crisis affords China a good opportunity. Significant in this context are Hillary Clinton’s remarks in Seoul that a crisis relating to leadership succession may be developing in secretive North Korea, the contact between Chinese and Japanese military officials from Feb 16-20 when the US Secretary of State was coincidentally in Tokyo, and a political contact in Pakistan.

Beijing’s assistance to the US in resolving the nuclear issue with North Korea, along with Japan and South Korea, has already been appreciated and was an acknowledgement of the influence China wields in North Korea. Hillary Clinton’s latest remarks made in Seoul regarding the succession struggle in North Korea is additional confirmation of China’s continuing influence in Pyongyang and suggests that USA now expects China to exercise the necessary moderating influence on any contending factions in North Korea to prevent tensions spilling over into the rest of the Peninsula. Contacts between Chinese and Japanese military officials in Tokyo, while part of a process, shows China’s readiness to continue engagement with its neighbours despite extant territorial disputes.

The conclusion of an agreement last week between the Chinese Communist Party and the hard-line Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) is another development which shows that China is preparing to play a bigger role in South Asia. The little publicized agreement, the first between the Chinese Communist Party and a political party with an avowedly religious affiliation, was signed on Feb 21 just days before a visit to China by PPP leader Zardari, by a high-level delegation from the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department led by Vice Minister Liu Hongcai. The delegation also met leaders of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and signed 13 agreements and MoUs. China now has close ties with all sections of Pakistan’s power structure.
The level of mutual trust that Pakistan and China share was publicly evident when Pakistan entrusted Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei to mediate with India and the latter’s acceptance of the role. China has acquired substantial interests in Afghanistan over the years and maintained contacts with the Taliban. The agreement with the JI gives China influence over large areas of Pakistan dominated by fundamental Islamic forces and makes China a potential source of assistance to the US.


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