U.S. 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 U.S.-China ties were derailed by a blind Chinese dissident whose dramatic flight to the U.S. 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 U.S. regional allies, Reuters reports.
As Clinton prepares to travel back to Beijing on Tuesday, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.”
“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.”
Clinton’s meetings on Wednesday will include outgoing President Hu Jintao as well as Vice President Xi Jinping, the man who will likely succeed him as China’s paramount leader following a Communist Party congress this year.
Xi visited the United States in February on a get-acquainted tour and U.S. officials expect him to be a steady-handed leader.
But concerns over China’s fast-expanding influence and its belligerent tone in regional disputes have Washington scrambling to assess how Beijing’s political stars are lining up.
China, too, has its concerns and has pushed back against U.S. attempts to referee the South China Sea dispute and insert itself into similar rows between China, Japan and South Korea over islands in the East China Sea.
While Washington has stressed that it takes no position on the competing claims and simply wants to see a mechanism established to resolve them, its forceful calls on China to play along have had a cool reception in Beijing.
Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on Asia-Pacific maritime disputes, said the recent exchanges left “no doubt that the U.S. is siding with ASEAN — not necessarily saying that their claim is correct, but that the bases of their claims have more merit than those of China”.
During Clinton’s last China visit in April, dissident Chen Guangcheng stole the headlines with his made-for-TV escape from house arrest, flight to the U.S. embassy, and eventual decision to take a U.S.-brokered deal to travel to New York.
U.S. officials are hoping for no such surprises during Clinton’s 24-hour visit in Beijing this week, saying this is a moment for stability, not stirring the waters.
“I think the secretary intends very clearly to underscore our continuing interest in maintaining a strong, positive relationship,” the senior U.S. official said.