Hillary Clinton has some advice for the next secretary of state on negotiating with Chinese leaders: “You have to be yourself, you have to be America, you have to stand up for American values, interests and security.”
In an interview with Bloomberg Radio after her sixth -- and probably last -- visit to China as the top U.S. diplomat, Clinton reflected on the lessons of 3 1/2 years trying to resolve issues with a rising power that is the world’s second-largest economy. Along with growing investments and influence around world, China has a key vote on the most important crises before the United Nations Security Council.
Clinton, who has indicated she will step down within months regardless of whether President Barack Obama wins re-election, was in Beijing last week trying to persuade Chinese leaders to adopt a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes that have sparked skirmishes with its neighbors in the South China Sea. She also wanted China to support the West in backing tougher action against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Her meetings with almost every top Chinese leader or leader-in-waiting were both friendly and frank, by all accounts, though neither issue was resolved.
At a joint press conference on Sept. 5, Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said they remained divided over how to address the maritime claims and the violence in Syria. At the same time, each took pains to highlight U.S.-China unity on other issues, including economic recovery measures and diplomacy to avert nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea.
“You have to look for ways to deepen understanding and find common ground wherever that’s possible, to work on enhancing the level of cooperation,” Clinton said in the interview yesterday as she capped an 11-day, six-nation Asia-Pacific tour in Vladivostok, Russia. At the same time, she said, it’s essential “to stand up for what we believe in. We’ve come a long way doing that” in U.S. foreign policy over the years.
Clinton went to Beijing in February 2009 on her first trip as secretary of state. Since then, she’s returned three times, twice for annual talks known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which she elevated in importance and broadened in scope during her first year in office.
She’s also made separate trips to China’s Hainan Island, as well as the city of Shenzhen and the Chinese territory of Hong Kong. She’s met with Chinese leaders numerous times in Washington and the UN, and at Asian summits and Group of 20 meetings.
Three months ago, Clinton’s visit to Beijing for the annual strategic and economic talks were almost derailed by a crisis over a blind Chinese dissident who was injured while escaping house arrest and persecution by authorities and was taken in by the U.S. embassy -- a risky decision that Clinton said she signed off on.
Over three days of U.S. talks with the Chinese about everything from currency and trade barriers to adopting clean cook-stoves and deterring the North Korean threat, Clinton’s deputies negotiated a deal for the blind activist, Chen Guangcheng, to be permitted to get medical treatment, leave his village and study law in China.
Once in a Beijing hospital, Chen changed his mind, saying he would feel safe only if he and his family could go to the United States. Clinton’s team went back to the Chinese leaders to make a pitch for a new deal.
At first, the Chinese refused, saying they had already accommodated the U.S. more than they needed to over a man who was a Chinese citizen. When Clinton met State Councilor Dai Bingguo, she said, as she always does, that human rights and personal freedoms are fundamental American values, according to U.S. officials who spoke at the time on condition of anonymity to describe the private talks. She urged him to not let the Chen case obscure Sino-U.S. cooperation on so many other issues.
The Chinese relented shortly before the two sides were closing the annual talks and agreeing to a joint statement on economic and security cooperation. A human-rights crisis that might have ended in disaster became a victory for Clinton.
During last week’s trip, Clinton repeated, as she often has, that the two sides “do not see eye to eye on everything,” saying that was natural in any relationship, especially between “two countries as large and diverse” as China and the U.S.
Echoing Clinton’s words, Yang also said the two do “not see eye to eye” on everything. It’s “inevitable there would be disputes or frictions” between the two, he told reporters, yet there was even more cooperation and “mutual respect.”
In yesterday’s interview, Clinton said she’s found that balancing act is “true with any country. We don’t agree on everything with anybody,” she said, citing a dispute over lobsters with Canada, one of the U.S.’s closest allies.
Asked what advice she would offer her successor on China, she said the key is “balancing as you say friendliness and firmness, but that’s true with everybody.” The China relationship is simply under the microscope, “more front-and-center because of the growing importance of the role that China is playing economically and politically,” she said.
Clinton has said many times that the U.S. needs cooperation from the world’s most populous nation to solve many global challenges, from pressing Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear programs to agreeing on trade rules and capping greenhouse-gas emissions.
In an interview after her previous trip to China, when the Chen case dominated U.S. headlines, Clinton called the relationship between the two sides “unprecedented in world history. We’re trying to find a way for an established power and a rising power to coexist.”
Yesterday, Clinton made clear she sees promoting a stable relationship with China as part of her legacy.
“Everything we’ve done has been to construct a framework of cooperation” with China that ensures “our presence and our position now and into the future,” she said. “I think you know we’ve put the relationship on a firm foundation.”
The U.S. has hit “some choppy waters” with China in the last few years and gotten through them without abandoning U.S. values or silencing concerns, she said. “I think that’s the sign of a maturing relationship.”
It’s not just about China, she said. The larger Asia-Pacific region -- home to 3 billion people and 56 percent of global economic output -- was the sole destination of her first trip as secretary, and has been a focus of her attention ever since.
In her first three years, Clinton made twice as many visits to the Asia-Pacific region as did her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice -- 36 compared with 18, according to State Department records. Many of those were to attend regional leaders’ meetings on security and development.
In the past, Clinton said, U.S. involvement in the region was superficial at best: “We’d show up once a year, go to some dinner, do a funny skit, show up again a year later.”
“I don’t think that’s adequate for the importance of this region and our role in it,” she said.
Clinton ended her trip yesterday at the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit, where she stood in for Obama, who was attending the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.