US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she will step down as America's top diplomat and enjoy some rest despite the re-election of Barack Obama as US president. Though many see this as the end of her political career, her diplomatic legacy will continue to exert influence across the world.
Since becoming the secretary of state in 2009, Clinton has made 70 overseas trips to more than 100 countries, spent 340 days on the road, including more than 80 days on her Air Force 757, and has been praised by the American media as a diplomatic "labor model".
Clinton has brought great strategic thinking to her job. Despite a mountain of domestic economic problems created by the global financial crisis, solving the diplomatic problems left behind by former US president George W. Bush was once high on her diplomatic agenda. According to American media reports, Clinton has worked into the small hours in her office trying to find ways to retain the US' global leadership and rebuild its credibility, and to deal with various global challenges in the post-Cold War era.
She is an advocate of the art of smart power and has peddled a flexible foreign policy philosophy around the world in a steadfast and composed way, which has improved Washington's image in the international community.
Soon after assuming office, Clinton began to reshape the US' relations with China and other emerging powers. Though she said the US was looking for ways to support China's peaceful rise, she mixed it with some tough rhetoric on China.
Most of all, she has spared no efforts in promoting Obama's "pivot to Asia" strategy. She visited the Association of Southeast Asian Nations secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, in February 2009 and stressed the importance of the region for the US, signaling the beginning of the "pivot to Asia" strategy.
The same year, she signed the US Instrument of Accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia at the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Thailand, something ASEAN had been seeking for 17 years, and agreed to the first ASEAN-US summit.
Improvement in relations with Myanmar is a breakthrough in the US' strategy for the region. For decades, the US had been hostile toward Myanmar and imposed sanctions on it. But Clinton has said publicly that the US will review its policy toward Myanmar, shifting from sanctions to engagement.
These are considered strategically important diplomatic decisions to further strengthen the US' ties in Southeast Asia.
After his re-election, Obama's first overseas trip was to Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. The US president's visit to Myanmar filled a geographical gap in Washington's "return to Asia" strategy. The US' "pivot to Asia", now called Asia-Pacific "rebalancing", will undoubtedly be Obama's diplomatic legacy with Hillary as its main promoter.
The US' strategic "rebalancing" toward East Asia, coupled with its intensifying military presence in the region, is considered an important strategy to contain China and has raised the hackles of Chinese strategists. The US' involvement in the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands dispute has exacerbated China's concerns that the US is trying to encircle China. This in turn has intensified bilateral strategic distrust and tensions.
China's peaceful rise has prompted Washington to make Beijing the most prominent target of its global strategy, and one of the principal aims of the US' strategic rebalancing is to contain China's rise.
Obama's strategy, now under fine-tuning, puts greater emphasis on a combination of strategies, including military, diplomatic, security and economic elements, many of which involve China. When US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Beijing, he invited China to participate in the next US-led "Pacific Rim multinational military exercise", with Washington claiming that it doesn't side with either Japan or China in the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands.
Clinton has reminded Japan to handle its relations with China carefully, because the US did not want to see the situation in the Asia-Pacific region spiral out of control. And even though the US Senate has passed an amendment to the national defense authorization bill for 2013, which emphasizes the US' right to freely navigate in the East China Sea and puts China's Diaoyu Islands under the purview of the US-Japan security treaty, the State Department is yet to comment on it.
Clinton has said the US was looking for ways to support China's peaceful rise, which is an important statement from a senior US leader. On the economic front, Obama is promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership to develop a US-led multilateral free trade mechanism in the region to share the benefits of faster economic development in Asia-Pacific. During the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the US decided to pull the 10 ASEAN countries into the TPP and it also welcomed China to join it. Of course, the TPP sets a high threshold for China in terms of its State-owned enterprises, government procurements and labor standards.
The US' strategic rebalancing toward Asia-Pacific is thus the combination of the diplomatic philosophy of Obama and Clinton, with the former as the final decision-maker and the latter as the real promoter.
But China need not worry about the US' "pivot to Asia" policy because its national strength and influence is still increasing. China and the US are highly interdependent in Asia-Pacific, and neither can enjoy complete dominance in many fields, which means they can counterbalance each other's influence as well as expand it. Based on this objective reality, leaders of both countries will continue to deal with bilateral relations from a strategic point of view.
No matter who succeeds Clinton, much can be expected from Sino-US relations. During Obama's second term, the US is likely to maintain continuity in its diplomacy despite the fine-tuning it is undergoing. Avoiding constant ups and downs in Sino-US ties is conducive to long-term strategic interests of the two countries. As far as Sino-US ties are concerned, the next US secretary of state can only go with the flow and promote positive bilateral cooperation.
The author is vice-president of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
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