PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The Obama administration now has a taste of the difficult diplomacy necessary to sharpen the focus of American power on Asia, seeking investment opportunities alongside reforms from rights-abusing governments and working with China while defending U.S. interests.
From democratic Mongolia to once-hostile Vietnam and long-isolated Laos, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week faced governments eager to embrace the United States as a strategic counterweight to China's expanding military and economic dominance of the region, while still lukewarm about American demands for greater democracy and rule of law.
And after meeting face-to-face with China's foreign minister Thursday as she began to wrap up a weeklong tour of Asia, Clinton lauded Washington's cooperation with Beijing even as she took up the case of several Southeast Asian nations threatened by the communist government's expansive claims over the resource-rich South China Sea.
In the discussions across the world's most populous continent, U.S. officials outlined their belief in greater democracy and freedom for Asian nations. The vision is part of a larger Obama administration effort to change the direction of U.S. diplomacy and commercial policy and redirect it to the place most likely to become the center of the global economy over the next century.
It is also a reaction to the region's slide toward undemocratic China as its economy has boomed and America's has struggled.
"As we've traveled across Asia, I've talked about the breadth of American engagement in this region, especially our work to strengthen economic ties and support democracy and human rights," Clinton told reporters Thursday. "This is all part of advancing our vision of an open, just and sustainable regional order for the Asia-Pacific."
Clinton will meet Friday with Myanmar's reformist President Thein Sein and introduce him to American business leaders looking for investment opportunities. The U.S. eased sanctions on the once reclusive military dictatorship this week, opening up new opportunities for the administration as it seeks to double American exports.
Still, Clinton said she would urgeThein Sein to do more. "Political prisoners remain in detention," she said. "Ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence continues to undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability and lasting peace. And fundamental reforms are required to strengthen the rule of law and increase transparency."
The tour started in Japan, where Clinton assured a long-time ally the U.S. was committed to its security. From there, she visited four countries in China's backyard, part of a larger economic area among the world's most dynamic. Up to now, however, China has taken the most advantage.
In each place, Clinton was careful to make the case for American values alongside American business aspirations. It's unclear, however, if both messages were received.
In Ulan Bator, she credited Mongolia with liberalizing economically as well as politically, holding it up as a foil to the Chinese model of growth without freedom. And she offered deeper U.S. partnerships with communist governments in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which have looked to Washington for fear of being swallowed up by China's expanding power.
But while two-way trade between Vietnam and the U.S. has soared by 40 percent in the last two years, there has been little improvement in the Vietnamese government's respect for dissidents. Laos may seek similar business relations with the U.S., but has yet to show any willingness to rectify its poor labor rights record.
What Washington doesn't want with these countries is what it has with Beijing, a partnership of unprecedented economic integration that stops when the discussion turns to human rights, democracy or sharing a vision for the world. It's a relationship that neither side appears able to change, both equally reliant on the other's goods and consumers, while mistrustful of the other's intentions.
"We are committed to working with China within a framework that fosters cooperation where interests align, and manages differences where they don't," Clinton said.
In probably her most difficult work of the week, Clinton pressed Beijing on Thursday to accept a code of conduct for resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a U.S. mediation effort that has faced resistance from China..
Meeting on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' annual gathering, Clinton stressed the different ways Washington and Beijing are cooperating, while Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi spoke of building even closer U.S.-Chinese ties.
Neither side mentioned the South China Sea while reporters were in the room. Afterward, according to U.S. officials, they got into the sensitive talk of the South China Sea, an issue that has caused grave concerns among China's neighbors and the wider world as tensions have threatened to boil over amid standoffs between Chinese and Philippine ships and competing Chinese and Vietnamese claims.
While China's claim over the entire area has driven countries closer to Washington, countless hours of talks between U.S. and Chinese officials haven't led to progress on a lasting solution. The waters host about a third of the world's cargo traffic, rich fishing grounds and vast oil and gas reserves – economic opportunities the U.S. would be locked out of if China were to seize total control.
Clinton, however, again framed it as a question of principles.
"The United States has no territorial claims there and we do not take sides in disputes about territorial or maritime boundaries," she told foreign ministers gathered in Cambodia's capital. "But we do have an interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea."
She singled out "confrontational behavior" in the disputed Scarborough Shoal off northwestern Philippines, including the denial of access to other vessels. The actions she cited were China's, though she didn't mention the offending country by name.
"We have seen worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and government vessels in connection with disputes among fishermen," she said. "There have been a variety of national measures taken that create friction and further complicate efforts to resolve disputes."
Despite publicly exhorting both China and Southeast Asian nations to diplomatically settle their disputes, a State Department release made no mention of the issue and instead spoke of Sino-American cooperation on everything from disaster relief to tiger protection. The issues were clearly secondary, but reflected an effort to compartmentalize any confrontation with Beijing and paint a larger picture of collaboration.