Minxin Pei: A nice picture, but do the pieces fit together?
Richard McGregor: A deceptively ambitious -- and expensive -- plan
It may have been a first for U.S. diplomacy: The leaders of the world's two most successful surviving communist parties met in Beijing this week, and, in some respects, Washington can claim credit for bringing them together.
Hu Jintao, who heads China's ruling Communist Party, hosted his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Phu Trong, for official talks in the Chinese capital, with the two sides agreeing to work together to solve their bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea. With China breathing fire on the issue in the last 18 months, Vietnam pressed Washington to get involved, which in turn helped give Hanoi a platform from which to restart a dialogue with Beijing.
China's assertiveness has been a gift to the United States in Asia, something that is evident in the bullish tone of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's article in the current issue of Foreign Policy. The United States was often spurned by regional leaders in the 1990s, until the 1997 Asian financial crisis took the wind out of their sails. In the first decade of the 21st century, America was preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, while Asia was mesmerized by China's rise.
In the last two years, however, the United States has been welcomed back into the region with open arms, as numerous countries hedge against a rising China. And if Clinton is to be taken at her word, the Obama administration is looking east again, with expansive plans in mind. One of America's most important tasks over the next decade, she writes, will be to "lock in a substantially increased investment -- diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise -- in the Asia-Pacific." It is an extraordinary statement at a time of domestic introspection and defense cuts in Washington.
The first building blocks of renewed engagement in Asia are already in place. Defense ties with Singapore have been deepened. When U.S. President Barack Obama visits Australia in November, he will be announcing a new program of ship visits and basing in the north of the country. That same month, the president will be in Bali for his first East Asian Summit and in Hawaii for the annual heads-of-state meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. All this, of course, is a prelude to the main game: whether the United States and China can work out a modus vivendi between themselves in the Asia-Pacific.
There is much that China will not like in Clinton's article. As Minxin Pei notes in an analysis in the Diplomat, "the Clinton statement will be seen in Beijing simply as another declaration that the United States is determined to remain as Asia-Pacific's pre-eminent power.… The strategic message to every country in the region, particularly China, is crystal clear: don't count us out and don't even think about pushing us out."
But can the United States afford to make a substantially greater commitment to Asia at a time of ballooning deficits? And what incentives does China have to accede to U.S. power at a time when it finally has the firepower to accumulate its own? Pax Americana has served Asia well since the end of World War II. Whether it can manage to bring China under its umbrella is the greatest challenge it has faced in the past half-century.
Richard McGregor is Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times and author of The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers.