July 25, 2011

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 to
The 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
,” 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
, 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 Journal
reported. “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

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