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Clinton Says U.S. Turning East As Asia-Pacific Region Becomes World's 'Center Of Gravity'

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Hawaii: "The 21st century will be America's Pacific century."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Hawaii: "The 21st century will be America's Pacific century."

Geographically, the United States faces East and West, but for decades its foreign policy has been mostly directed toward Europe.

Now, that balance is changing.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary, making a keynote speech in Hawaii on November 11, announced the shift in emphasis, as Washington seeks to recalibrate its foreign policy.

"The 21st century will be America's Pacific century, a period of unprecedented outreach and partnership in this dynamic, complex, and consequential region," she said.

Speaking on the sidelines of a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Clinton said Washington wants to build a "trans-Pacific system" for Asia that is modeled on the United States' trans-Atlantic relationship with Europe.

Noting that the post-World War II institutions between the United States and Europe had paid "remarkable dividends," Clinton said the time had come for "a more dynamic and durable trans-Pacific system."

"American businesses are eager for more opportunities to trade and invest in Asian markets," she said. "And we share with most nations the goal of broad-based, sustainable growth that expands opportunity, protects workers and the environment, respects intellectual property, and fosters innovation. But to accomplish these goals, we have to create a rules-based order, one that is open, free, transparent, and fair."

Change Of Focus

The speech announces a change of American focus that has been a priority of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration since he took office in January 2009. But for the past three years, Washington's desire to increasingly define the United States as a Pacific, as well as Atlantic, nation has been hampered by entanglements elsewhere.

U.S. President unveils hopes for Pacific free-trade initiative at APEC summit

Those entanglements have ranged from dealing with the post Cold War order in Europe to commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of the current economic troubles of the eurozone.

We believe a thriving China is good for China…and good for America.
But Clinton made it clear that Washington is now determined to engage with the Asia-Pacific region. Obama has made it a goal to double U.S. exports by 2015 and the United States sees the East Asian market as essential to reaching that goal. American exports to the Pacific Rim countries totaled $320 billion last year, supporting 850,000 American jobs.

Clinton noted that the Asia-Pacific region stands at a "pivot point" as it becomes "the world's strategic and economic center of gravity."

At the epicenter of Asia's rise, of course, is China, and Clinton appeared to direct much of her speech to Beijing.

She said the United States welcomed a "thriving China," and that it was in neither country's interest for Washington to try to contain the rising Asian power.

"We believe a thriving China is good for China…and good for America," she said.

Currency Criticism

But managing the U.S. relationship with China has never been easy, as Clinton also acknowledged.

"China needs to take steps to reform. In particular, we are working with China to end unfair discrimination against U.S. and other foreign companies, and we are working to protect innovative technologies, remove competition-distorting preferences," she said. "China must allow its currency to appreciate more rapidly and end the measures that disadvantage or pirate foreign intellectual property."

Washington particularly faults Beijing for keeping its currency – the yuan or renminbi -- artificially low in its exchange rate with the dollar so that China's exports are cheap for Americans but America's exports are expensive for Chinese.

But there are also tensions between the United States and China over Beijing's poor record on human rights. Clinton touched on that, too, saying U.S. officials would "continue to call on China to embrace a different path."

In response, China accused Clinton of interfering in its affairs.

"We oppose foreign interference into China's internal affairs and judicial sovereignty," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told journalists. "The Chinese government protects the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese citizens."

'Dynamic' India, Indonesia

The top U.S. diplomat did not only speak about China, however.

She said Washington wants to increase its engagement with India and Indonesia and described them as "two of the most dynamic, significant democracies" in the world today.

Together, India and Indonesia account for almost one-quarter of the world's population and Clinton has previously said the stretch of sea from the Indian Ocean to the Strait of Malacca to the Pacific contains the world's most vibrant trade and energy routes.

At the same time, Clinton said Washington would seek better ties with Vietnam and Myanmar. But she put conditions on both these relationships.

"We support not only open economies but open societies," she said. "And as we engage more deeply with nations with whom we disagree on issues like democracy and human rights, we will persist in urging them to reform. For example, we have made it clear to Vietnam that if we are to develop a strategic partnership, as both nations desire, Vietnam must do more to respect and protect its citizens' rights."

For Myanmar, she said that "should the government pursue genuine and lasting reform for the benefit of its citizens, it will find a partner in the United States."

'Partner Of First Resort'

Clinton also said Washington would maintain its close relationship with its five key allies in the region: Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

As the United States embarks on its new drive to promote trade, strengthen regional integration, and build alliances in Asia, U.S. officials have been careful to stress this does not mean turning away from Europe.

Writing in the U.S. magazine "Foreign Policy" this month, Clinton said that "other regions remain vitally important, of course."

"Europe, home to most of our traditional allies, is still a partner of first resort, working alongside the United States on nearly every urgent global challenge."

Still, Clinton's speech on November 11 cannot be seen as anything less than a clear statement that Washington no longer wants to be thought of first and foremost as an Atlantic power.

The U.S. secretary of state's speech is considered to be a preview of the message the United States will give to the summit of the APEC forum. The forum, which started on November 11 and runs through November 20 in Honolulu, will include a gathering of world leaders from the organization's 21 member states.

APEC comprises Australia; Brunei Darussalam; Canada; Chile; Hong Kong, China; Indonesia; Japan; Korea; Malaysia; Mexico; New Zealand; Papua New Guinea; People’s Republic of China; Peru; Philippines; Russia; Singapore; Chinese Taipei; Thailand; United States; and Vietnam.

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