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Realpolitik, but Clinton is a show-stopper in the Pacific

EVAN OSNOS | The New Yorker

Hillary in the Cook IslandsIT TAKES A LOT OF DOING to get yourself to Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, a place of windswept palms, crashing surf, and a population of 11,000, scattered across 15 tropical specks in the South Pacific.

It’s a patch of dry land the size of Washington, DC. So, with all eyes in Washington this week on Tampa, and, soon, on Charlotte, why did Hillary Clinton become the first Secretary of State ever to touch down in Rarotonga? Is she dying to catch up with Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi of Samoa? Is it the body-surfing?

The answer, of course, is China. In the diplomatic equivalent of driving across town to honk at the opposing team’s locker room, Clinton is attending a regional dialogue hosted by the Pacific Islands Forum, usually the domain of island states, as well as Papua New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Chinese, who have assiduously courted Pacific Island nations in recent years, are also attending, and when Clinton arrived Friday night (Rarotonga time), it did not escape reporters’ attention that the Chinese delegation had scheduled a press conference for precisely the same hour.

China’s state news service is not subtle about its discontent, saying Clinton’s trip is “aimed at curbing China’s growing influence” and “stirring up disputes.” It called on Washington to “abandon its surreal ambition of ruling the Asia-Pacific and the world.”)

Rarotonga has barely been able to accommodate the attention. A New Zealand reporter predicts that it will be “a much bigger show than when Zac Guildford ran naked from waterfront Trader Jacks.” (Guildford is a rugby star.)

The island has been scrambling to deal with so many dignitaries, reportedly even asking residents to pony up use of their SUVs to fill out Clinton’s motorcade. While the State Department has limited the size of her entourage, the contingent includes some notable attendees, including Admiral Sam Locklear, head of the Pacific Command.

Clinton’s turn in the South Pacific is part of the Administration’s “pivot” towards Asia, which includes establishing a new submarine-corps base in Australia and a rotating military presence in the Philippines.

Earlier this year, Clinton spelled out the challenge. She told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that China had “brought all of the leaders of the South Pacific to Beijing, and wined and dined them.”

As the Los Angeles Times reported, she was blunt: “Let’s just put aside all the moral, humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in, and let’s just talk, you know, realpolitik. We are in a competition with China.”

That in itself is not news, but there is a growing sense on both sides of the Pacific that the competition has entered a complex new phase. Last November, Clinton was the first Secretary of State to visit Burma since John Foster Dulles, in 1955—and the occasion was perceived in Beijing as a setback for its efforts to consolidate power in Asia.

In foreign policy, China is not expansionist in the manner of the Soviet Union. But, as Stephen Walt of Harvard has argued, growing states seek to shape the security environment around them, and China is pursuing command over East Asia much the way the United States used the Monroe Doctrine to push European powers out of the hemisphere in the nineteenth century.

The US has no intention of leaving, and President Obama has declared that America will remain a power in Asia, in his words, for the rest of the century.

In China, expanded American military cooperation in the Pacific has been greeted with intense suspicion, a turn of events that local analysts compare to the Soviet Union sending missiles to Cuba.

Graham Allison, writing in the Financial Times recently, asked if China and the United States are doomed to encounter Thucydides’s Trap—the pattern of history established in the fifth century BC, when the rise of a new power—Athens—shocked the reigning power—Sparta—and led to 30 years of conflict that left both sides ruined. Allison writes:

“If we were betting on the basis of history, the answer to the question about Thucydides’s trap appears obvious. In 11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred.”

It’s a bleak prospect, and there are many who wonder if the debate doesn’t run the risk of fulfilling its own prophecy. But these are early days in this new stage of the relationship, and the decisions made now will have lasting impact.

Before returning to Washington, Clinton will meet with Chinese foreign-policy chiefs, and one hopes they can find greater common ground on issues like Iran and Syria, where there are urgent reasons for cooperation.

It’s been a while since Americans had cause to spend much time in the neighborhood of Guadalcanal and Bougainville, and I hope that we won’t have many reasons to be there again soon.

Photo: Jim Watson

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