Saturday, February 14, 2009

Some Thoughts on Hillary Clinton’s February 13 Speech

Hillary Clinton’s 13 February speech at the Asia Society in New York, two days before her trip to Japan, South China, South Korea and Indonesia, has already been widely reported and is available in its entirety, including the Q&A, here. As English-language speakers no doubt are already aware, a substantial part of her talk is about the financial crisis, North Korea’s nuclear program, and climate change and China. I hope my comments shed some light on her talk that has otherwise not been covered.

The substantive part of Hillary Clinton’s speech begins with a tribute to the progress that Asia has made in the fifty years since the founding of the Asia Society. In the process, she gives a list of the traditional sights and sounds of Asia that have caught her attention in her travels over the years.
I think of the elegant temples of Kyoto, or the rituals of nomadic life outside Ulaanbaatar, the intricate handwork of traditional craftspeople in Chiang Rai, the vibrant markets of Hanoi, Hong Kong, and Dhaka; the grand hotels of Singapore and Manila, the calligraphers practicing their art in Xi’an, the historic dress of Seoul and the traditional dances of Jakarta, or the strum of the sitar in New Delhi.
In doing so, she implicitly refers to: Japan, Mongolia, Thailand, Vietnam, China (twice: one state, two systems), Bangladesh, Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, and India. They can be sorted into: Northeast Asia (four; excluding North Korea and Russia), ASEAN (four; with Malaysia the one major member missing), and South Asia. Her visits to Central Asia—she visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as First Lady—Pakistan, West Asia (Afghanistan) and the Middle East (Iraq) go unmentioned.

These omission are not unreasonable, since she is weaving a story of progress as the backdrop for a “new era of diplomacy and development in which [the United States] will use smart power to work with historic allies and emerging nations to find regional and global solutions to common global problems.” The “common global problems” that she specifically cites here are: financial instability and economic dislocation, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (for all practical purposes nuclear proliferation), food security and health emergencies, climate change and energy vulnerability, stateless criminal cartels and human exploitation. The U.S. outreach, using smart power, will extend beyond governments and “engage civil society.”

There is a strong emphasis here on dialogue; “we are ready to listen”. This is very much Obamaesque. But it is in this context that a couple of other countries (as well as China) receive less favorable attention when she says, “As part of our dialogues, we will hold ourselves and others accountable as we work to expand human rights and create a world that respects those rights, one where Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi can live freely in her own country, where the people of North Korea can freely choose their own leaders, and where Tibetans and all Chinese people can enjoy religious freedom without fear of prosecution.”That’s Burma and North Korea, as well as China. (Note, though, the carefully crafted ambiguity of the phrase “Tibetans and all Chinese people”—not “Tibetans and Chinese” of course, but not “all Chinese people, including Tibetans,” either.

Of these global concerns, Clinton first takes up global financial crisis and its economic impact. Nothing really new here; I’ll just note that she invokes the importance of international partnerships and avoiding protectionism.

The second major item on the ticket is North Korea’s nuclear program. But before that, she touches briefly on “maintaining our historic security alliances in Asia and building on those relationships to counter the complex global threats we face” and goes on to state “I’m very pleased that Japan and South Korea this week agreed to joint assistance for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and that both countries continue to work with us on global security, especially in combating piracy off the Horn of Africa.” Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the main opposition party, has reportedly been spouting some unrealistic thoughts about dispatching the Japan Coast Guard there. No wonder he has been doing his best to avoid Clinton’s outstretched hand. At least she didn’t mention the refueling operations.

Back to North Korea: she states the obvious with regard to the Obama administration’s continued commitment to the Six-Party process and her intent to discuss this with Japan, China, and South Korea on this visit. The U.S. position is clear and unchanged from the central premise, however unrealistic, of the Six-Party process:
“If North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program, the Obama Administration will be willing to normalize bilateral relations, replace the peninsula’s longstanding armistice agreements with a permanent peace treaty, and assist in meeting the energy and other economic needs of the North Korean people.”
After 165 words on this subject (out of a total 3,382 words for the entire speech, frills and all) she follows with 32 words on—what else?
“On a related matter, I will assure our allies in Japan that we have not forgotten the families of Japanese citizens abducted to North Korea. And I will meet with some of those families in Tokyo next week.”
It is now all about not forgetting, it seems. Such meetings have become a rite, sealed in a place where time goes by so slowly, until regime change—or something very similar—heralds the beginning of the end for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and hauls Japan’s financial assistance into the picture..

Next, Clinton expends 276 words on climate change and the need for clean sources of energy. She emphasizes the need for “partnerships that promote cleaner energy sources, greater energy efficiency, technology transfers that can benefit both countries, and other strategies that simultaneously protect the environment and promote economic growth”, and sees such collaboration as “a real opportunity to deepen the overall U.S.-Chinese relationship”. Nothing remarkable here about the substance, but note the careful distinction here between the plural “partnerships” and the singular “relationship”.

But I digress. Before leaving climate change and energy behind, note that Clinton also mentions working with Japan and South Korea, as well as Indonesia, on clean energy. Not that anything dramatic is going to happen any time soon—is it my imagination, or are pundits with the least energy background the most enthusiastic supporters of collaboration?—but it’s not all China here.

This is followed by a riff on “development” as one of the three D’s—the others are defense and diplomacy—that are vital to U.S. security, and cites Indonesia, and more broadly ASEAN, favorably in this context, saying, “we look forward to working with our other partners and friends in the regions, allies like Thailand and the Philippines, along with Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam, to ensure that ASEAN can live up to its charter, to demonstrate the region’s capacity for leadership on economic, political, human rights, and social issues.” A shoutout to Australia, which is not on the itinerary, follows. After that, it’s a rundown of specific, bilateral issues that she will be discussing on her visit.

The key sentence with regard to Japan:
“Our security alliance with Japan, 50 years old next year, has been, and must remain, unshakable.”
. It’s not easy to be more explicit than that. Her agenda: signing the Guam International Agreement to move U.S. troop out of “the peace and stability of Asia and increasingly focuses on global challenges”. Again, a problem for the Ozawa DPJ, given its challenge of the price tag, the Japanese,, trillion-yen and upwards, payout. At the bilateral level, China receives by far the most space (295 words to Japan’s 159). But it’s a desire for “a positive, cooperative relationship.” Speaking of which…

Earlier, I took note of the care with which Clinton used the words “relationship” and “partnerships”. The same care can be seen in her use of words regarding bilateral issues here. More broadly, I was reminded of the sentence that touched the nerves of the Japanese establishment in her Foreign Affairs essay where she said:
”Our relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.”
It had MOFA officials counting the number of times “Japan” and China” appeared in this essay as well as her campaigning speeches and reportedly asking visiting Japan hands to divine the meaning of it all. All too often, The Japanese authorities and the Japanese media fail to see that Clinton, as well as other responsible U.S. figures, routinely distinguish between “relationship(s)”, “partnership(s)”, and “alliance(s)”. Then of course there’s “engagement”. This is not a mere quibble. These distinctions are essential to understanding, constructing, and explaining the conceptual framework that is the foundation of the foreign and national security policies of Japan, indeed, of any sovereign state.

After China, the speech ends on a positive if unremarkable note, with the following call:
Let us commit ourselves to providing the kind of outreach and responsiveness, understanding, and commitment that will lead not just to a better understanding, but positive actions to improve the lives of our own people here and those who live in Asia today.
And who can disagree with that?

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