Don’t drop your guard, Hillary!

It is terrific that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is making Asia her first official trip abroad.  America is a Pacific nation.  And that’s where the future is.  Clinton’s decision is strategic.  The countries she’s decided to visit (Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and China) and the order she is visiting them are solid judgments. 

Now the hard stuffs starts.

The first real conversation between President Obama and his Chinese counterpart resulted from a mistake the President’s Secretary of Treasury made.  In response to a question during his confirmation hearing, then-nominee Geithner used language hinting the United States might start a trade war over the value of the Chinese currency.  If there is one thing we don’t need during this recession – and unfortunately we’ve already chosen a couple of them – it is a trade war.

President Obama was forced to call the Chinese President to reassure him that Geithner didn’t mean what he said.  (Geithner, by the way, apparently thought he was on firm ground by repeating what Obama said on the campaign trail.)  When you think of all the issues we need to talk to the Chinese about, Chinese military expansion, nuclear missiles in North Korea, persecution of Christians, China’s friends in Burma beating monks, the Chinese themselves beating monks, the Chinese running interference for their friends in Sudan and Iran….   Not to mention the immediate concern that the Chinese will make the current economic mess worse by trying to export their way out of it. 

Yet, in President Obama’s first call, the United States was in a defensive crouch. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, several outlets reported that the President called China America’s most important relationship in the world.  That came as a shock to democratic Japan, with whom we actually have a treaty alliance.  And it reminded the Japanese of a similar mistake Clinton made during her primary run. 

Round one goes to the Chinese.  Unfortunately, we beat ourselves.   

Secretary Clinton’s trip is round two.  Getting the formalities right is just touching gloves.  As much as she may just want to circle around the ring, and size up her opponent, the Chinese will come after her – especially on Taiwan. 

America has a commitment to Taiwan’s security.  It galls the Chinese that we will not accept their claim to the island.  They will press Clinton about it.  They will complain about arms sales to Taiwan.  They will complain about the Taiwan Relations Act – the law of the land that legally commits America to Taiwan defense.  They will be looking for any opening to land a punch.  She has to counter by getting every word right.  One slip and the Chinese will declare a new American policy.

The Chinese sense an opportunity because the relationship between Taiwan and China is better than it has ever been.  That’s good – as long as it has the support of Taiwan’s democracy.  There is money to be made in China, and who wants to go to war in the Taiwan Straits?  But it’s important that Secretary Clinton be able to stand toe-to-toe with the Chinese so we and our friends in Taiwan determine the pace and conditions of their relationship, not the Chinese.  If she buckles, the Chinese gain an advantage in the Pacific, and the rounds just get tougher from there.

What Secretary Clinton can do is make clear to the Chinese, and the rest of the region, that the United States is ready to go the distance in the Asia game.  And she can lay down important markers with the Chinese.  If we can find areas of shared interest to cooperate on, fine.  We should be engaged with the Chinese.  But the new American administration should raise the bar on evaluating their cooperation.  Sudan, North Korea, Burma, Iran.  China has a distinct bad taste in friends.  They are simply not doing enough to solve these problems.  Clinton should make clear that we’re done pretending otherwise.

The Chinese don’t live in the post-sovereignty world that American liberals long for.  Just the opposite…  They are so jealous of sovereignty that they consider mere commentary on their governance “interference in internal affairs.”  Not only that, but they claim sovereignty over areas long claimed by others.  The Secretary of State may want to talk about energy, environment, and economy.  The People’s Republic of China sees the world in much more fundamental terms.  

China seeks to supplant the United States as the Asia Pacific’s predominant power and to challenge us globally when and where it suits them.   If we want to maintain our leadership, we have to fight for it.  Once the Secretary of State Clinton is wheels up, whatever our political differences at home, we are in her corner. 

But please, Hillary, don’t drop your guard.