The Clinton Doctrine, Made in Asia

Washington openly challenged Beijing in Hanoi late last month. Chinese officials are still fuming, but they had it coming.

On July 23 in the Vietnamese capital, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the ASEAN Regional Forum, announced that the peaceful resolution of competing territorial claims to the South China Sea is a U.S. “national interest.” “The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion,” she declared. “We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.” Although Mrs. Clinton did not specifically use the word “China” in this context, the secretary of state noted that Beijing’s claims to the entire South China Sea were without foundation, “invalid” as a senior American official privately put it.

Chinese diplomats were stunned. They knew the issue might come up at the conference but assumed the United States would not oppose China’s expansive — ludicrous — claims.  When Mrs. Clinton had in fact done so, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi left the room for an hour. When he came back, he went off on a 30-minute rant. “China is a big country and other countries are small countries,” he said as he stared at his counterpart from Singapore, George Yeo. “And that’s just a fact.”

Yes, China is big, and it has been successful in using its heft to intimidate not only the small but also the large. Take the United States, for instance. Chinese supremo Hu Jintao had humiliated President Obama last November at the summit in Beijing.  Before that, he had tamed George W. Bush, who not only failed to stop the Chinese run for regional dominance but also aided it.  Dubya, most notably, put Beijing at the center of global efforts to stop the North Korean nuclear weapons program by having China host the spectacularly unsuccessful six-party talks.

The Chinese took Bush’s generosity as a signal of weakness and pressed the advantage with his successor. They forgot about Hillary, however. More important, they neglected to take into account the inherent strength of America’s democracy.

America, like most democracies, can be pushed around at first by hardline regimes, especially large ones. As observers going back to Tocqueville have noted, representative governments will do most anything to avoid trouble abroad. And China took advantage of the situation as it tried to force the U.S. Navy out of the South China Sea. In March 2009, for example, Chinese boats interfered with the Impeccable, an unarmed Navy reconnaissance vessel. Washington, inexplicably, failed to complain in public about the harassment, which was so serious it constituted an attack on the vessel — and, therefore, on the United States.  Since then, there have been unreported incidents between Chinese and American ships in Asian waters.

Americans, of course, are not the only targets of Beijing’s aggressiveness. China’s navy, it appears, also harassed Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Indonesian boats in recent months. In light of the increasing Chinese activity in the South China Sea, nations in the region were asking for the United States to assert leadership. As a result, Mrs. Clinton issued her now-famous words in Hanoi.

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.