The Rise of China Looms Large as Hillary Clinton Heads for Meetings With Asian Allies

By Patrick Goodenough | October 25, 2010 | 4:43 AM EDT

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, arrives in Beijing during a regional tour in May 2010. She’s returning to Asia this week. (Photo: State Department/AP)

( - As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton begins a visit to Asia this week, she will meet first with her Japanese counterpart, at a time when tensions between Japan and China show no sign of abating.

Clinton will hold talks with Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara in Honolulu, before traveling to Vietnam to join an East Asia Summit. From there, she will visit five other countries, the State Department said.

Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun cited government sources in Tokyo as saying the meeting in Honolulu would focus on China’s military buildup, and especially attempts to expand its maritime influence.

Chinese policies and actions in the region, where it is embroiled in maritime disputes with Japan and several Southeast Asian nations bordering the South China Sea, have left many countries uneasy and cautiously looking to the United States for backing.

Clinton will have an opportunity to build on earlier expressions of support this year when she attends the Vietnam meeting, which brings together the 10 Southeast Asian (ASEAN) nations plus another six from around the region – China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The summit is an ASEAN-led initiative, and ASEAN members recently agreed to expand participation to include the U.S. and Russia. Clinton’s attendance this year prepares the way for the American president to do so beginning in 2011.

China’s rise and recent conduct is expected to feature prominently both during Clinton’s trip and during President Obama’s visit to the region immediately after Clinton’s. Obama will attend a summit of Asia-Pacific (APEC) in Yokohama, Japan.

The simmering China-Japan dispute was triggered by the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain after a collision with Japanese Coast Guard ships in Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea, which China claims as its own.

Even after Japan freed the captain without pressing criminal charges a month ago, Beijing chose to prolong the dispute, demanding official apologies and compensation and permitting anti-Japanese protests to be held in Chinese cities, most recently on Sunday.

Even more worrying for Japan is an apparent Chinese decision to cut the export of crucial rare earth metals to Japan, a move seen in Japan as directly related to the diplomatic spat.

Beijing insists that no embargo is in place, although the Japanese government and affected industries say otherwise.

The rare earth issue is of concern for Japan – and other countries including the U.S. – because the metals are used in important technologies ranging from computers to cell phones, from hybrid cars to defense hardware.

Although it only possesses about 36 percent of the world’s estimated reserves of rare earths, China accounts for well over 90 percent of world supply. It attained that dominance by undercutting competitors, keeping prices down through cheap labor and lower regulatory costs.

Japan is looking for other sources – with Kazakhstan and Vietnam among the possibilities – but industry experts say there will be a lengthy lead time for other countries with rare earth reserves to be ready to step in as reliable alternative suppliers.

The owner of an important rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, California, which ended many operations eight years ago, announced this year that it plans to bring the facility back into full production, after a modernization and expansion project.

Japanese trade minister Akihiro Ohata on Sunday urged China to resume the shipments, broaching the subject during a meeting in Tokyo with Chinese vice commerce minister, Jiang Yaoping.

According to Japan’s NHK broadcaster, Ohata said Jiang had reiterated that there was no ban on shipments to Japan.

Instead, Jiang blamed any delays in supply on tightened customs inspections, designed to prevent the smuggling of rare earths.

That was not the first reason Beijing has given for any changes to shipments.

Earlier the commerce ministry cited a need to protect the metals from over-exploitation, saying that the current rate of production could see supply running out in 15-20 years. As a result, it said, China had reduced export quotas, with more cuts expected next year.

In his meeting with Jiang, Ohata also urged China not to allow anti-Japan protestors to attack Japanese interests based in China.

More protests at the weekend saw hundreds of Chinese rally to demand that Japan end its control over the disputed area where the trawler collision occurred. In a country where political demonstrations are not usually allowed, China’s communist authorities periodically tolerate displays of nationalistic zeal, mostly focusing on the historical enemy, Japan.

Last week Maehara, the Japanese foreign minister, said China’s reaction to the trawler incident had been “hysterical.” China’s foreign ministry declared itself shocked by the comment.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow