The Clinton Doctrine, Made in Asia

Perhaps we will soon be referring to the “Clinton Doctrine.” The Washington Post, in a widely circulated article on Friday, reported that the Obama administration has adopted “a tougher tone with China.” Yet American officials are still trying to work with their Chinese counterparts on these territorial disputes.

The Chinese, however, do not seem to have much interest in working with us. Foreign Minister Yang called Mrs. Clinton’s words “an attack on China” and charged that the United States was ganging up on his country. Last Monday, three fleets of the Chinese navy conducted live-fire drills in the South China Sea. State media reported that Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde and navy commander Wu Shengli supervised the exercise. Their on-site participation, analysts said, was unprecedented. On Friday, the Defense Ministry issued another in its series of statements denouncing Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.

We should not be surprised by Beijing’s hostile approach. China seized the western Paracels islands from Vietnam in 1974 and Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995.

“The blame for creating this mess obviously belongs to China,” notes Arthur Waldron, the prominent University of Pennsylvania scholar. “But the U.S. can be faulted for teaching China the wrong lessons in the past, by resolutely looking the other way when she took possession, sometimes violently, of specks in the South China Sea.”

America’s continued indulgence of hostile Chinese conduct, therefore, has made the South China Sea matter even more dangerous. Beijing does not accept Mrs. Clinton’s involvement in settlement of competing claims, so the test for Washington will be to recognize that recent dialogue has been counterproductive and to understand that the next steps may have to be stern.

Democracies must show resolve. That’s the critical test for the secretary of state.