The U.S. risks falling behind China in the competition for global influence as Beijing woos leaders in the resource-rich Pacific, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.
Her unusually strong comments before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are certain to anger the communist power, especially in light of Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent high-profile visit to Washington, seen as boosting trust and trade between the world's two largest economies.
As Clinton railed against cuts sought by Republican to the U.S. foreign aid program, she told senators, "We are a competition for influence with China. Let's put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in. Let's just talk straight realpolitik. We are in competition with China."
She noted a "huge energy find" in Papua New Guinea by U.S. company Exxon Mobil Corp., which has begun drilling for natural gas there. Clinton said China was jockeying for influence in the region and seeing how it could "come in behind us and come in under us."
America's top diplomat accused China of supporting a dictatorial government in Fiji, where plans to reopen an office of the U.S. Agency for International Development would be shelved under a resolution passed last month by the Republican-led House. That measure proposes sharp cuts to foreign assistance, including a $21 million program to help Pacific islands vulnerable to rising sea levels, as part of efforts to rein in government spending.
Clinton also said China had brought all the leaders of small Pacific nations to Beijing and "wined them and dined them."
"We have a lot of support in the Pacific Ocean region. A lot of those small countries have voted with us in the United Nations, they are stalwart American allies, they embrace our values. And they believe, contrary to what some might think, that they are sinking," Clinton said.
She said foreign assistance was important on humanitarian and moral grounds, but also strategically essential for America's global influence.
"I mean, if anybody thinks that our retreating on these issues is somehow going to be irrelevant to the maintenance of our leadership in a world where we are competing with China, where we are competing with Iran, that is a mistaken notion," Clinton said.
In the past year, Obama administration has invested much diplomatic effort in firming up ties, including military ones, in the Asia-Pacific. That push has won applause by some governments, particularly in East Asia, because of concerns over China's expanding clout and aggressive claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea.
The administration has said it is important to get along with China because of their shared interests in global stability and their deep economic ties. China holds $1.16 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities, helping finance the vast U.S. government deficit.
Before Hu's visit, Clinton said that the U.S. would pursue a "positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship," and she welcomed China as a rising power.
Charles Freeman, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the U.S. was "unquestionably" involved in a "soft power competition with China. But this isn't a hard power, Cold War exercise."
"Beijing gets nervous when we talk about competition in any form," he said. "Hints of Cold War rivalry make them frantic."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee: http://tinyurl.com/68zdfbd