This Weekend’s News: A Softer Tone in the Asia-Pacific Region

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrapped up her trip to the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum on Friday after speaking to delegates with a much softer tone than others might have expected. Earlier in the week, China and ASEAN members announced an agreement on guidelines to govern the South China Sea, but not a binding code of conduct. Secretary Clinton declared her support for the effort to ease tensions over disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, according toThe Wall Street Journal. “Although she commended regional leaders for pledging earlier this week to work together to resolve the claims, she avoided direct criticism of China, which has asserted its sovereignty over the disputed areas, and held back on tough talk about U.S. interests in the South China Sea that in the past has angered Chinese diplomats,” the Journal reported on Saturday. Of course, Secretary Clinton was clear on the need for a code of conduct, stating, according to Agence France Press, “We think it was an important first step but only a first step in adopting the declaration of conduct.”

Nevertheless, Secretary Clinton’s softer tone on China seems to suggest a greater sensitivity to China’s concerns in the region, as the United States attempts to strike a diplomatic balance in engaging China on regional challenges that could require the United States to make some concessions; for example, between the South China Sea and a nuclear North Korea. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said that “We are entering a period of really quite consequential diplomacy for the United States in Asia, probably more so than at any other period over the course of the last decade,” according to United Press International.

Striking a diplomatic balance with China does not mean that the United States will retreat from the region though, as Secretary Clinton made clear with her announcement for deeper U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Indeed, Secretary Clinton used the ASEAN Regional Forum to promote the Lower Mekong Initiative, an effort to “help countries along the Mekong River—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam—improve their environments and infrastructure as well as their health and education systems,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “The wide-ranging plan includes everything from a workshop held in Laos this year to brainstorm about how to design and build a better cook stove to reduce pollution, a two-year survey by three U.S. scientists to study and map the Mekong, and a program to combat counterfeit drugs and support the construction and repair of clinics, schools and roads in the region.”  The Lower Mekong Initiative could be a much more discrete and less-sensitive point of entry for the United States to “rebuild relationships in the region, especially with countries that historically have had close ties with China,” the Journalreported. “People familiar with the matter say several of the Mekong-region countries have often sided with China in recent debates over regional security issues such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and that U.S. officials want to curry favor with those countries by taking a more activist role in their economic development.” As the United States pushes this effort forward, however, U.S. diplomats will have to be continuously mindful of the concerns China may have with a greater U.S. presence in the region, even if that presence is more discrete.

This Week’s Events

On Tuesday at 9 AM, head over to the Wilson Center for a conversation on Dams and Sustainability in China. At 9:15 AM, the U.S.-Indonesia Society will host Maritime Security in the Southeast Asia/South China Sea.

On Wednesday at 2 PM, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute will host More Fight, Less Fuel: The Defense Department's Deployment of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

On Thursday at 12 PM, head to Resources for the Future for Integrated Hydro-Economic Modeling of Catchment Science and Non-Market Valuation. At the same time, the Wilson Center will host International River Basins: Mapping Institutional Resilience to Climate Change.