- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Buried in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony in her confirmation hearing before Congress two weeks ago was a subtle challenge to China wrapped in an evident preface to President Barack Obama’s emerging policy toward Beijing.

Shortly after, and almost as if on cue, China’s leaders published a white paper on defense that pointed warily to what they saw as an increase in American power in Asia. The United States, the white paper said, has been “consolidating its military alliances, adjusting its military deployment, and enhancing its military capabilities” in the Asia-Pacific region.

Mrs. Clinton, who was confirmed as secretary the day after President Obama’s Inauguration, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “We want a positive and cooperative relationship with China.” She added, however, that “this is not a one-way effort. Much of what we will do depends on the choices China makes about its future at home and abroad.”

In a written report, Mrs. Clinton answered earlier questions from the committee and elaborated on what the United States expects: “We can encourage them to become a full and responsible participant in the international community - to join the world in addressing common challengers like climate change and nuclear proliferation - and to make greater progress toward a more open and market-based society. But it is ultimately up to them.”

An interesting sequence here: On Jan. 8, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was in Beijing to mark 30 years of Sino-U.S. diplomatic relations but evidently was not informed of the forthcoming white paper, which took months to prepare. On Jan. 13, Mrs. Clinton testified and her written report was made public. On Jan. 20, the Chinese released their white paper, the same day President Obama took office.

In substance, Mrs. Clinton’s testimony suggested President Obama’s policy toward China would continue that of President Bush. But the firm tone, challenging China to respond without ambiguity, was new.

Mrs. Clinton was noncommittal on dialogue with Beijing, saying in her written report: “We are looking carefully at the question of how to develop this important engagement with China. We expect high-level engagement to continue in some form.” The new secretary, however, was clear on the issues of Taiwan, Tibet and human rights in China.

On Taiwan, the self-governing island off the coast of China, Mrs. Clinton followed precedents set earlier. “The administration’s policy will be to help Taiwan and China resolve their differences peacefully while making clear that any unilateral change in the status quo is unacceptable.”

China’s leaders have insisted Taiwan is part of China and have threatened to use force to capture the island, particularly if it declared independence. The former government of President Chen Shui-bian nudged Taiwan toward independence while the current government of President Ma Yong-jeou has pledged to maintain the status quo.

Mrs. Clinton said the new administration “will speak out for the human rights and religious freedom of the people of Tibet. If Tibetans are to live in harmony with the rest of China’s people, their religion and culture must be respected. Tibet should enjoy genuine and meaningful autonomy.”

Beyond Tibet, Mrs. Clinton said, the administration will “press China on our concerns about human rights at every opportunity and at all levels, publicly and privately, both through our mission in China and in Washington.”

In response, China’s white paper asserted: “Separatist forces working for ‘Taiwan independence,’ ‘East Turkistan independence’ and ‘Tibet independence’ pose threats to China’s unity.” East Turkestan refers to Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang in western China. They are related to other Muslims in neighboring central Asia.

China, the defense paper contended “faces strategic maneuvers and containment from the outside.” American presidents, secretaries of state and defense, commanders of U.S. Pacific forces, and U.S. ambassadors in Beijing have sought for much of the last 30 years to persuade Chinese leaders that the United States poses no threat - apparently without success.

The white paper contends: “In particular, the United States continues to sell arms to Taiwan in violation of the principles established in the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques, causing serious harm to Sino-U.S. relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits.”

The three communiques, of 1972, 1979 and 1982 were intended to define relations between the United States and China but they have been in dispute from the beginning as the United States and China disagree on what they mean. The United States, for instance, says they call on China and Taiwan to settle their differences peaceably; the Chinese say they retain the right to employ military force to settle the dispute.

Richard Halloran is a freelance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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