Hillary’s pivot posse and China as Wild West desperado
30 Jun 2014|

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton departs Nay Pyi Taw en route to Rangoon, Burma, on December 1, 2011. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Hillary wants you to know what the US is doing in Asia is a ‘pivot’. The previous Secretary of State thinks ‘rebalance’ is bureaucratic blandness, and dismisses its usage as ‘anodyne.’

Part II of the Clinton memoir is headed ‘Across the Pacific’ and the first chapter is ‘Asia: The Pivot’. And pivot it remains throughout. The purpose of the pivot is simple, even if the mechanisms are complex—it’s all about China.

Being present at the creation—indeed, claiming creator’s rights—Clinton writes in plain terms about the purpose and the power of that grand strategy shift. Of her first trip as Secretary—to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and, finally, China—Clinton says: ‘We needed to send a message to Asia and the world that America was back.’ She quotes the secretary-general of ASEAN on US ‘diplomatic absenteeism’ and comments: ‘That was a rather pointed greeting but he was right about our intentions.’

Citing husband Bill on the need to focus on trendlines and not just headlines, Hillary sees the pivot responding to what the US National Security Council called ‘an historic transfer of relative wealth and economic power from West to East’.

Clinton says US frictions with China are more than disagreements about individual issues—the clash is over ‘very different perceptions of how the world, or at least Asia, should work.’ Her final thought is that in a contest over fundamentals, much could go wrong:

We have no interest in containing China. But we do insist that China play by the rules that bind all nations. In other words, the jury’s still out. China has some hard choices to make, and so do we. We should follow a time-tested strategy. Work for the best outcome, but plan for something less. And stick to our values.

Hillary gives no space to Beijing’s view that ‘play by the rules’ really means ‘play by the US rules’; yet there’s plenty to buttress that interpretation. The economic pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiation, is ‘a strategic initiative that would strengthen the position of the US in Asia’.

Clinton expresses in one sentence the reason why Japan is in the TPP and China is not: ‘The TPP became the signature economic pillar of our strategy in Asia, demonstrating the benefits of a rules-based order and greater cooperation with the US.’ Ah, those rules again.

If the US can beat back the lawyers and lobbyists of Washington to do the compromises with Japan (and Vietnam, Australia, etc) for a TPP this will be rule writing and grand strategy performed in trade costume.

Usually a cautious pro in her image making, Hillary offers one classic American metaphor for the South and East China seas: ‘For the smaller nations, it could feel like the Wild West—a frontier without the rule of law, where the weak were at the mercy of the strong.’

The potential for China to act as Wild West desperado is expressed over the page: ‘Would China use its growing power to dominate an expanding sphere of influence, or would the region reaffirm international norms that bind even the strongest nation?’

Clinton nominates 2010 as the ‘tipping point’ when Washington started to round up the posse for ‘American leadership in Asia and in the pushback against Chinese overreach.’ I stress that ‘posse’ is my word. If Clinton sees the Wild West and her jury is still out, what hack could resist conjuring Hillary heading the pivot posse?

Explaining the creation of the pivot, Clinton outlines three options discussed in thinking about the new Asia approach:

  1. Focus on China ‘on the theory that if we could get our China policy right, the rest of our work in Asia would be much easier’.
  2. Alternatively, strengthen US treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Australia ‘providing a counterbalance to China’s growing power’. Clinton says ‘Australia became a key ally in our Asian strategy’ under both the Rudd and Gillard governments.
  3. Elevate and harmonise the ‘alphabet soup of regional multilateral organisations’. While Asia could not expect ‘anything as coherent as the European Union’, the multilateral bodies ‘could provide a venue for every nation and point of view to be heard and offer opportunities for nations to work together on shared challenges, resolve their disagreements, establish rules and standards of behaviour, reward responsible countries with legitimacy and respect, and help hold accountable those who violated the rules.’

As usual when a nation confronts big, differing, even conflicting options, Clinton decided ‘to meld all three approaches’. The thing that melds the options into the pivot is China—and (under option 3) how to ‘hold accountable those who violate the rules’? The pivot posse faces a big job.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.