Hillary's China Focus, and a Lonely Japan?

Clinton says the U.S.-China relationship will be the world’s “most important bilateral.” What should Japan think?

The main candidates for U.S. president are all contributing essays on their foreign policy vision to Foreign Affairs, and Sen. Hillary Clinton (as well as Sen. John McCain) came up this issue. Tobias Harris, in an entry called “The Vanishing Ally,” notices that Clinton made a bold statement, putting the U.S. relationship with China at the top of her list of priorities.

“Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century,” Clinton writes. She continues:

The United States and China have vastly different values and political systems, yet even though we disagree profoundly on issues ranging from trade to human rights, religious freedom, labor practices, and Tibet, there is much that the United States and China can and must accomplish together. China’s support was important in reaching a deal to disable North Korea’s nuclear facilities. We should build on this framework to establish a Northeast Asian security regime.

But China’s rise is also creating new challenges. The Chinese have finally begun to realize that their rapid economic growth is coming at a tremendous environmental price. The United States should undertake a joint program with China and Japan to develop new clean-energy sources, promote greater energy efficiency, and combat climate change. This program would be part of an overall energy policy that would require a dramatic reduction in U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

We must persuade China to join global institutions and support international rules by building on areas where our interests converge and working to narrow our differences. Although the United States must stand ready to challenge China when its conduct is at odds with U.S. vital interests, we should work for a cooperative future.

Dealing with China is just one of many issues Clinton’s essay lists as challenges for the next president (some others—two wars, Iran, “a resurgent Russia,” threats to Israel and oil supplies in the Middle East, climate change, and possible global epidemics). But consider this quick count of the most-mentioned countries. The count includes adjectival forms, so “China” and “Chinese” would both be counted.

Country Mentions
Iraq 33
Iran 15
China 13
Afghanistan 12
Russia 12
Israel 7
India 5
Sudan/Darfur 4
North Korea 3
Palestine* 3
Japan, Kosovo*, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Tibet* 2 each
Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe 1 each
*These places or their descriptors are used separately from the states that claim to govern the territories. Also, Hamburg, Germany, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, were each mentioned once.

(This counting exercise I admit can be a bit silly; it threatens to elevate a Foreign Affairs piece to the level of the State of the Union. But it can demonstrate just how high on the public agenda China has risen, at least in the mind of Clinton’s foreign policy writing.)

Regarding the statement that the U.S.–China relationship is the century’s most important, Tobias writes, “That may be disconcerting for Japan, used to hearing U.S. officials insist on the importance of the U.S.–Japan relationship, but it also happens to be true.” He adds later, “[T]he U.S.–Japan relationship could be an essential part of the U.S. approach to China, helping smooth China’s ascension to regional and global leadership (and hold China accountable). Senator Clinton hints at this—she mentions cooperation on clean energy—but no policymaker or presidential candidate has discussed a Sino–U.S.–Japanese triangle.”

Given that the Sino–Japanese–U.S. triangle was my blogging bailiwick for an entire year, I can confirm that, indeed, no one talks much about this. But I don’t go as far as Tobias when it comes to actually fearing the U.S. government under a new administration would forsake Japan. Japan remains essential to the United States as a security and economic partner. All sides of the triangle need both security and business relations to remain smooth throughout the trilateral. It may be the case the Clinton and her campaign simply decided against giving much space to reiterating the U.S. relationship with Japan in this particular essay. It looks to me from the table as if some countries were included in the essay as a political hat-tip (see especially the passage on Latin America, where the Bush administration is scolded for inattention but Clinton offers little other than a laundry list of nations).

My main message here is that this is a campaign document, not so much a policy proposal. It may have been a bit of a diplomatic gaffe not to give Japan a little more space, but I doubt the omission will have any adverse effect on the campaign. On the other hand, when China-related issues inevitably come up in force during the Olympics in August 2008, just three months before the general election, it will be key for candidates to have a record on China. Barring any unforeseen disasters, Japan will not likely be a major topic in U.S. media coverage leading up to the election.





3 responses to “Hillary's China Focus, and a Lonely Japan?”

  1. kuriharu Avatar

    I can see Mrs. Bill Clinton saying that China would be the most bilateral partner.

    They bankrolled his reelection campaign in 1996 and they’re doing the same for her now. I thought McCain/Feingold was supposed to stop this.

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