Two months ago it was Central Asia. A month later it was Africa. Now she is on a whistle-stop tour of Southeast Asia and East Asia, preceded by a brief stopover in the Cook Islands for the Pacific Islands Forum summit.
With the zealousness of an absent lover wooing a neglected beau, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been consistent in promulgating her president’s much touted pivot toward Asia. However, as we in Asia fully understand, it is not the message. It’s the tone it is delivered in.
In the months following Barack Obama’s pivot announcement, no one can doubt that the US is back — back in Asia, that is — politically, militarily and economically. Yet rather than evincing a fervor for Asia, the nation’s “return” has been marked with a preoccupation with China. Clinton’s messages have all had the same tone, whether explicit or implicit: Dissuading other countries of the rise of Beijing’s influence.
Speaking in Mongolia, China’s rising democratic neighbor, two months ago, Clinton said that governments “can’t have economic liberalization without political liberalization eventually”.
As if referring to China’s slowing economy, Clinton said: “Clamping down on political expression or maintaining a tight grip on what people read, say or see can create an illusion of security. But illusions fade — because people’s yearning for liberty don’t.”
In Senegal a month later, Clinton tried to tout the tagline that the US was committed to “a model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it”.
The secretary conceded that US policies in the past “did not always line up with our principles. But today, we are building relationships that are not transactional or transitory”.
With respect to Clinton’s statement, many in Indonesia and throughout Asia will respond with a bemused “Oh, really?”
Indonesia supports the values that Clinton touts. But such a manner of delivery is too divisive for Asia. Furthermore, playing the “values” card is just too convenient for a nation whose actions have not spoken louder than its words.
One can only remain wary of Washington’s own economic intentions and wherewithal when it comes to rediscovering Asia.
Clinton’s big words in Ulan Bator may have been a political rallying call, but her presence served as an even more potent lobbying effort for America’s Peabody Energy as it competes with a Chinese state-owned enterprise for contracts for a huge coal deposit in the south Gobi, just 140 kilometers from the Chinese border.
Clinton’s tour of Africa was a belated effort to wrest back influence lost in the continent as China grew to overshadow the US as its largest trading partner. Beijing’s impact is such that the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa was built as a gift from China, which has further extended its credit line to Africa to US$20 billion.
Facing a senior Chinese delegation in Cook Island, Clinton toned down her rhetoric, especially since she will also be in Beijing this week. Yet her efforts to suspend the extension of China’s ‘string of pearls’ to Pacific islands seems paltry in comparison.
According to the Lowy Institute, Beijing has pledged over $600 million in loans to nations in the South Pacific since 2005.
In comparison Clinton — the first US secretary of state to attend the annual South Pacific summit — pledged last week $32 million in new projects, some 18 years after Washington suspended aid programs to the South Pacific.
Indonesia, and most of Southeast Asia, will welcome the US pivot in Asia if it means a supportive peace presence in the region. What will be rejected is the seeming habit of major powers — be they China or the US — to define countries as allies or adversaries. And both Beijing and Washington have been guilty riling divisions.
The biggest threats to ASEAN’s centrality are the gnawing moves that ultimately pit its 10 members against each other.
Southeast Asia has dealt with the powerful Middle Kingdom since the pre-Majapahit era, and it has always founds a way to persevere without submission. The last thing the region needs is acerbic commentary in Indonesia’s backyard that will encourage retaliatory responses from Beijing.
If the purpose of Clinton’s visits to Asian capitals is to parade on the high horse of rhetoric, she should attend the convention her Democratic Party in Charlotte, North Carolina, and not visit Jakarta.
Nations in the region — and Clinton herself — should heed her own words in Cook Islands: “I think, after all, the Pacific is big enough for all of us”.