The United States is continuing to challenge China on a number of issues, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton occupying a pivotal role. The American Secretary of State ladled out faint praise for the recently concluded ASEAN conference in Bali Indonesia. At that conference, the attending nations adopted guidelines for handling the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
"We think that this is important first step, but only a first step in adopting the declaration of conduct," Clinton said.
Implicitly opposing the Chinese position that claims the entire South China Sea on historical grounds, Clinton called upon China to produce legal arguments consonant with today's Law of the Sea.
Additionally, the United States claims that these disputes cannot be regarded exclusively as a Southeast Asian issue as a great deal of the world's commerce passes through the South China Sea, making it an international issue. This contrasts with the Chinese position that seeks to deal with competing claims of other South Asian East Asian countries on a bilateral basis, or at most, on a regional basis.
The tacit American backing has encouraged Southeast Asian countries to take a stand against China. The admirals of the Southeast Asian countries gathered in Hanoi, ostensibly for "enhancing collaboration, cooperation amongst the ASEAN navies", but in reality to mull measures for counteracting the dominant and growing Chinese naval presence.
On another issue, North Korea, the United States and South Korea are united in a position that there will be no return to the six party talks (Russia, China, the US, the two Koreas and Japan) without concrete actions by Pyongyang towards abandoning its nuclear program.
China is the chair for the six party talks. Both the United States and South Korea are holding bilateral talks with the North Koreans, temporarily bypassing China and Russia. These talks may lead to nowhere, especially as the North Korean representative in the United States is calling for a US- North Korean peace treaty, but in the meantime, the policy represents frustration with China's unwillingness to pressure a North Korean regime propped up by Beijing.
The state of the US economy has made Clinton enunciate US impatience with certain Chinese economic policies. Clinton, speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong on "Principles for Prosperity in the Asia-Pacific", stated American differences with China without mentioning China by name.
Amongst the principles that Clinton harped upon in her address was the need for an open Asia-Pacific economic system eschewing exclusive trading arrangements favored by China.
She said that this regional system has to be free, allowing for the unimpeded flow of ideas information and products. This means that China has to be open to American and other foreign capital.
Economic regulations must be transparent and communicated to all parties, meaning that American companies bidding in China have to be informed of the rules of the game and not be blocked by suddenly invented ones.
Rules have to be applied fairly, Clinton continued. In order to trade with China, the United States does not have to surrender its technology nor can China slap restrictions on "rare earth" metals in order to secure an unfair competitive advantage.
A final salvo from Clinton was her rejection of the Chinese position that China as a developing country deserves exemption from problems such as preserving the environment. Even if China were still a "developing nation", she said, given the extensive trade with China (and also with India), extending the exemptions would lead to the collapse of the international economic system. This would ultimately work to the detriment of China.
Most importantly, Clinton served notice that the United States was a "resident power in Asia… And we are here to stay."