06 September 2016
by John Kehoe

Hillary Clinton's tough on China strategy will demand more of Australia

Barack Obama's final Asia trip and weekend meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping are an apt point to reflect on the US President's strategic "pivot" to the region and to foretell how a Hillary Clinton, if elected president, will handle a rising superpower rival.

In Washington and beyond, there is a palpable sense among Clinton confidants and the foreign policy professionals that there will be at least one material difference between Obama and Clinton.

The former secretary of state will be much harder on China.

"Across the region I think there's broadly an expectation that things will be tougher with China," says Mike Green, a former Asia security adviser to president George W. Bush and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The shift to a more hawkish Clinton, while generally likely to be welcomed in Canberra, will present a conundrum for the Turnbull government.

A president Clinton will lean more on traditional allies, including Australia and Japan, to confront Beijing's indiscretions in the South China Sea and cyber theft of intellectual property.

'Walk the talk'
Washington-based Andrew Shearer, a former national security adviser to prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard, says Clinton's team will want Canberra to "walk the talk" by conducting more daring freedom of navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of hotly disputed artificial islands claimed by Beijing.

"With Hillary you will find a shift to a more alliance-based Asia policy to manage China," Shearer says.

Australia has so far eschewed directly challenging Beijing in more contested waters, preferring to pass through calmer South China Sea areas of little consequence.

Pointedly, Clinton's top confidants on international relations and Asia who may play significant roles in her administration, including Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell, are big believers in alliances to tackle China.

Bill Burns, who is rumoured to be a frontrunner for the coveted secretary of state role, has previously said publicly he views the US alliance system as a "source of comparative advantage".

Separately, Burns spoke privately at the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in July in Washington.

'China first' approach
It would be unfair to characterise that Obama completely bypassed the traditional alliance system in dealing with China, especially given his credible sustained engagement with South East Asia.

Yet there is a strong feeling across Asia and in Washington that the Obama White House focused its China and broader Asia strategies on direct engagement with Beijing, often outside the alliance system. Traditional partners sometimes felt left in the dark and insecure.

It was a quasi G2 or "China first" approach, particularly in the early years as Obama tried to accommodate China through "strategic reassurance" to reach important global deals on climate change and Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Kurt Campbell, reputedly the architect of the Obama-Clinton "pivot" as Assistant Secretary of State and more recently the co-chair of the Clinton campaign's Asia advisory team, writes in his recently published book, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, that the White House was "noticeably more exercised and energised by China".

"China was the big leagues, and rhetorical focus on a rebalance to Asia was manifested primarily as a deeper engagement of Beijing."

"Intensified diplomacy with China had the unintended consequence of creating concern [in Asia] ... that the US might in a weakened position sacrifice critical interests in the hope of preserving smooth ties with China."

Campbell adds that allies in Asia felt "diminished" watching the "lavish festivities" afforded to Chinese guests at the White House.

Whether the critique is totally fair or not given Obama's genuine deepening of the US footprint in broader Asia, the implication is that under a president Clinton allies will be engaged earlier in a more co-ordinated approach to deal with China.

Hillary's way
Team Clinton's foreign policy team, is likely to consist of hawkish Democrats (not Republican neo-conservatives) keen to engage constructively with China but from a more assertive position.

China will be forced to respond to her, rather than dictating terms as easily.

"Intelligently assertive," is how one foreign policy source who has dealt with Clinton and China extensively describes her likely approach.

China is entirely aware of this reality should Clinton win the November 8 election, as seems very likely.

It is almost 21 years to the day since Clinton's global acclaimed first lady speech in Beijing, "Women's Rights Are Human Rights".

Chinese who were grossly offended by her criticising the treatment of Chinese women on Beijing's home soil have not forgotten the very public international humiliation.

Furthermore, in 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton attacked the incumbent George H.W. Bush for doing business with the "butchers of Beijing".

When Clinton finished as secretary of state in 2013, the Global Times (a tabloid linked to the official People's Daily newspaper) described her as "the most hated American politician among Chinese internet users" and blamed her for "severely sabotaging China's bilateral relations with its neighbouring countries".

When she announced her presidential candidacy last year, an article on the People's Daily Overseas Edition's social message app, WeChat, critiqued her "historically tough dealings with China" and portrayed her as anti-Chinese.

If Clinton wins the White House, US-China tensions are only likely to escalate. The fallout will be felt in Canberra and demand difficult choices.