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Hillary Clinton: The “Pivot to Asia”

Secretary Clinton was critical in America’s “pivot to Asia” strategy.

As Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution wrote in Foreign Policy, “The ‘pivot’ to East Asia will probably be Obama’s most lasting strategic achievement… [but] it is Clinton’s too. She laid the groundwork, built the relationships, and developed the complex architecture of the new strategy — and she turned up at that pivotal moment in Vietnam in July 2010 to declare the U.S. commitment to the region.” Secretary Clinton also earned significant praise for her work in opening up Burma, a place that had not been visited by a Secretary of State in 50 years.

Helped Lead the Pivot to Asia

Sec. Clinton conducted “a political and diplomatic offensive to prove American staying power in Asia.”

As Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings wrote, “Hillary’s chief great-power legacy was indeed the rebalancing of U.S. interests toward Asia, and it has been vastly underappreciated by the chattering class… The reason the rebalance worked is that, led by Clinton but surely with very important input from leadership at the Pentagon and the president himself, the military measures were interwoven into a broader set of policies that was well articulated and clearly conveyed.” And as Walter Lohman of the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote, “The President and his administration—particularly the Secretary of State—conducted a political and diplomatic offensive to prove American staying power in Asia. It marked a 180-degree turn from where the White House had begun three years earlier.”

Secretary Clinton championed the cause of gay rights around the world.

As this chart by the Congressional Research Service illustrates, during her first three years in office, Secretary of State Clinton made far more visits to countries in East Asia and the Pacific than her predecessors:

Table 2

Stood Up to China

Defense Secretary Gates: When it came to countering China’s influence in Asia, “Secretary Clinton was very much in the lead.”

“In its disputes with neighbors, China always prefers to deal with each country individually. They are easier to intimidate that way. Thus the United States looks for opportunities to encourage countries in the region to meet together, including with China, to address these disputes. The Obama administration was particularly active in pursuing this tack, including our own participation wherever possible. Secretary Clinton was very much in the lead. A major step forward in this regard was her planned official visit to Vietnam in July 2010, followed immediately by her participation in the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum in Cambodia (where her comments on the South China Sea disputes and the multilateral criticism of China’s aggressive behavior would surprise and anger Beijing).” [Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, 2014]

Sec. Clinton’s support for multilateral negotiations over the South China Sea was a “sharp rebuke” to China.

According to the New York Times, “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at an Asian regional security meeting in Vietnam, stressed that the United States remained neutral on which regional countries had stronger territorial claims to the islands. But she said that the United States had an interest in preserving free shipping in the area and that it would be willing to facilitate multilateral talks on the issue. Though presented as an offer to help ease tensions, the stance amounts to a sharp rebuke to China. Beijing has insisted for years that all the islands belong to China and that any disputes should be resolved by China. In March, senior Chinese officials pointedly warned their American counterparts that they would brook no interference in the South China Sea, which they called part of the ‘core interest’ of sovereignty.” [New York Times, 7/23/10]

Sec. Clinton’s stance led 11 ASEAN members to issue statements that day supporting multilateral talks.

According to Forbes columnist Gordon Chang, “In a meeting between [Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)] members and [Chinese diplomat] Yang Jiechi before Clinton arrived in Hanoi, only the Philippines was willing to raise the issue of the South China Sea. Once word spread that Clinton would adopt a firm position, however, 11 participants issued statements on the matter. No wonder the Chinese feel they were ambushed in the Vietnamese capital. Whether or not it was a trap, Clinton, in her finest hour as secretary of state, supplied leadership in Southeast Asia.” [Gordon Chang, Forbes, 7/28/10]

Sec. Clinton’s focus on the entire region empowered nations that had been historically intimidated.

“Clinton was stalwart in supporting allies that felt threatened by Beijing, saying so publicly and emphatically in numerous key visits, as in Manila and Southeast Asia. She also called for a multilateral approach, rather than China’s preferred set of bilateral dealings with smaller and weaker neighbors, in settling disputes over contested territories in the South China Sea. Regional states appreciated her willingness to support their interests, and to incur anger from Beijing, in doing so.” [Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings, 12/13/13]

Sec. Clinton’s stance ended a policy in which “America looked like it was acceding to Chinese demands.”

As Forbes columnist Gordon Chang wrote after Clinton’s comments about the South China Sea, “Up until now, Washington has been largely oblivious to Chinese attempts to make the South China Sea a ‘Chinese lake.’ It ignored Beijing’s seizure of territory and even did little to protect ExxonMobil when China, in 2008, tried to intimidate the company from entering into an exploration deal with PetroVietnam, the state energy company, in the South China Sea. In adjacent areas it has done virtually nothing to prevent China’s navy from harassing Japanese warships, as it did most recently in April, and to stop Chinese submarines from regularly violating Japanese waters, which they have been doing for most of this decade. In short, America looked like it was acceding to Chinese demands for control over the South China Sea.” [Gordon Chang, Forbes, 7/28/10]

Sec. Clinton “expertly led efforts to rescue Chen Guangcheng, the dissident who took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.”

According to an op-ed by former Foreign Affairs Officer in the Bureaus of Political Military Affairs and International Security and Nonproliferation, Eli Sugarman, “Clinton understands the importance of strengthening ties with friends and allies while simultaneously engaging adversaries. Through intensive personal interaction, she has deftly built new relationships and managed old ones in a way that advance U.S. interests. In her own words, she has endeavored to ensure that the U.S. has ‘…a seat at every table that has the potential for being a partnership to solve problems.’ For example, she expertly led efforts to rescue Chen Guangcheng, the dissident who took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in May 2012, without crippling U.S.-China relations. Clinton has been the most active secretary of state in history, as a result.” [Eli Sugarman, PolicyMic, 1/2/13]

Sec. Clinton defused a potential “diplomatic disaster” in negotiating China’s Chen Guangcheng’s travel to the U.S.

According to a Robert Nolan op-ed for U.S. News & World Report, “Her brokering of the release of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from house arrest in his village ahead of Clinton’s visit to China last May, defused what easily could have been a diplomatic disaster by deftly negotiating Chen’s travel to the United States to study at New York University.” [Robert Nolan, U.S. News & World Report, 12/13/12]

Worked Multilaterally to Isolate North Korea

Sec. Clinton asserted the U.S. would not reward North Korea “just for returning to the table.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Clinton…laid down a tough line on North Korea, declaring that the United States and the communist nation’s neighbors will offer no new incentives for the Pyongyang government to return to nuclear disarmament talks. ‘We do not intend to reward North Korea just for returning to the table, nor do we intend to reward them for actions they have already committed to, then reneged on,’ Clinton said.” [Los Angeles Times, 7/23/09]

Sec. Clinton, Sec. Gates and Obama worked alongside the Chinese to defuse a standoff between North and South Korea.

According to Agence France Presse, “The claims were made in the newly published memoir of former US defense secretary Robert Gates… The 2010 incident followed the North’s surprise shelling of a South Korean border island in November of that year. The attack triggered what Gates labelled a ‘very dangerous crisis’, with the South Korean government of then-president Lee Myung-Bak initially insisting on a robust military response… Over the next few days, Gates said he, US President Barack Obama and then secretary of state Hillary Clinton had numerous telephone calls with their South Korean counterparts in an effort to calm things down… According to Gates, the North’s only major ally China had helped ease tensions by simultaneously ‘weighing in with the North’s leaders to wind down the situation’.” [Agence France Presse, 1/14/14]

Reinforced the Security of Allies


Sec. Clinton affirmed that the U.S. would stand by Japan in territorial disputes over the East China Sea.

According to Reuters, “Clinton, due to step down in coming weeks, again affirmed that the United States would stand by its longtime ally in its territorial dispute with China over islets in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.”[Reuters, 1/18/13]

Sec. Clinton forged an agreement with Japan including a $5 billion contribution from the Japanese government “to ensure the continued enduring presence of American forces in Japan.”

According to an op-ed by Sec. Clinton for Foreign Policy, “We have agreed to a new arrangement, including a contribution from the Japanese government of more than $5 billion, to ensure the continued enduring presence of American forces in Japan, while expanding joint intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities to deter and react quickly to regional security challenges, as well as information sharing to address cyberthreats. We have concluded an Open Skies agreement that will enhance access for businesses and people-to-people ties, launched a strategic dialogue on the Asia-Pacific, and been working hand in hand as the two largest donor countries in Afghanistan.” [Sec. Hillary Clinton, Foreign Policy, 10/11/11]


Sec. Clinton signed the Manila Declaration which reaffirmed the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

According to a Voice of America editorial, “The Manila Declaration, which the U. S. Secretary of State and Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario signed on November 16th, reaffirms that the United States-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty remains the foundation for the bilateral relationship, and sets forth a shared vision for strategic, political, economic, and people-to-people cooperation.” [Editorial, Voice of America, 11/30/11]

South Korea

Sec. Clinton and Sec. Gates pledged to continue U.S. support for the defense of South Korea.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Standing a few feet from North Korea, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Wednesday pledged Washington’s continued support for defense of South Korea, in an unprecedented joint visit to the demilitarized zone.” [Los Angeles Times, 7/20/10]


Sec. Clinton launched an initiative to facilitate greater U.S.-India cooperation on counterterrorism, defense and other issues.

According to the Washington Post, “The United States and India on Monday established a high-level forum designed to further strengthen a relationship that has dramatically improved in recent years… The ‘strategic dialogue,’ unveiled on the final day of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s three-day tour of India, will be one of only about a half-dozen such relationships the United States has with other countries.” According to the State Department, “Through a coherent structure of bilateral working groups, the two governments will address a wide range of issues with the goal of producing concrete results [including] Strategic Cooperation working groups will address nonproliferation, counterterrorism and military cooperation.” [Washington Post, 7/21/09; “U.S. – India Agreements and Achievements,”, 7/20/09]

Sec. Clinton signed agreements with India facilitating the sharing of U.S. space technology.

According to Asia Times Online, “New rules for India’s space program are now in effect with respect to India’s access to United States space technology and components – thanks to a Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA) signed on July 20 by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and India’s Foreign Minister S M Krishna.” According to the State Department, “the agreement will facilitate the launch of U.S.-licensed spacecraft components and safeguard protected technologies and data of both countries. The side letters commit the United States and India to enter into consultations regarding the market for commercial space launch and satellite services.” [Asia Times Online, 8/7/09; “U.S. – India Agreements and Achievements,”, 7/20/09]


Sec. Clinton expanded U.S. security agreements with Singapore and advocated for increased security relationships “in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region.”

According to an op-ed by Sec. Clinton for Foreign Policy, “We are modernizing our basing arrangements with traditional allies in Northeast Asia — and our commitment on this is rock solid — while enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean. For example, the United States will be deploying littoral combat ships to Singapore, and we are examining other ways to increase opportunities for our two militaries to train and operate together. And the United States and Australia agreed this year to explore a greater American military presence in Australia to enhance opportunities for more joint training and exercises. We are also looking at how we can increase our operational access in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region and deepen our contacts with allies and partners.” [Sec. Hillary Clinton, Foreign Policy, 10/11/11]

Promoted Democratic Reforms


Sec. Clinton “took a leading role in moving Myanmar’s generals to accept the modern era.”

According to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, “As secretary, Clinton took a leading role in moving Myanmar’s generals to accept the modern era. This was long, difficult work that Clinton managed to balance with larger geopolitical issues of the day. One of the many red herrings the Republicans tried to peddle in the presidential campaign was that Obama damaged America’s standing in the world. But most foreign policy successes don’t happen by accident or overnight. They are the product of talking with enemies and allies alike, of searching for common ground and of knowing how to act as a model and not a bully.” [“Hard Diplomatic Work Pays off in Myanmar,” Editorial, Tampa Bay Times, 11/23/12]

Burma’s revitalized relationship with the United States included “the release of hundreds more political prisoners.”

In the book, HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, authors Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen wrote, “In late 2010, the Burmese junta demonstrated its good faith by releasing Suu Kyi, and Hillary’s visit a year later signaled America’s continued interest in promoting democratic reforms. Burma’s revitalized relationship with the United States, which would soon include the release of hundreds more political prisoners and the concomitant restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries, represented a challenge to China’s dominance in its own neighborhood.” [HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, pg. 256, 2014]


Sec. Clinton considered Mongolia to be “a model of how democracy can be born from authoritarianism.”

According to the New York Times, “Formerly aligned with the Soviet Union, Mongolia has been held up by the administration as a model of how democracy can be born from authoritarianism. Its democratic credentials were tarnished in April when the government arrested former President Nambaryn Enkhbayar on corruption allegations; he was held for a month until formally charged and released on bail in May, according to the State Department. On Monday, Mrs. Clinton did not refer to the arrest, choosing to praise parliamentary elections last month in which nine women were elected to the 76-member Parliament, three times the number in the previous legislature. She met President Tsakhia Elbegdorj in a ceremonial yurt, the traditional abode of nomadic herders, that featured a carved wooden ceiling, elaborate chairs and a glistening chandelier. With Mr. Elbegdorj seated on the stage at Government House, a Soviet-style building from the 1950s, Mrs. Clinton extolled Mongolia as an excellent example of how freedom and democracy were not exclusively Western concepts. To those who doubted, she said, ‘Let them come to Mongolia.’” [New York Times, 7/9/12]


Sec. Clinton lauded Indonesia’s “great transformation” into a democracy.

According to the New York Times, “Reaching out to the world’s most populous Muslim country and the boyhood home of her new boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Indonesia on Wednesday to pay tribute to its hard-won political freedoms. ‘Indonesia has experienced a great transformation in the last 10 years,’ she said, referring to the Asian financial crisis of 1998, which led to the ouster of Suharto, its autocratic president, and set Indonesia on the path to becoming a robust democracy. ‘If you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia,’ she said at a dinner of academics, journalists, environmentalists and women’s rights advocates.” [New York Times, 2/18/09]

Pushed Trade and Development Partnerships

Sec. Clinton pushed for the finalization of the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement.

According to Reuters, “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday that concluding a long-delayed free trade agreement with South Korea was a priority for the Obama administration, and it was committed to getting the deal done this year. Clinton told a gathering of business leaders in Seoul that, beyond the economic benefits, the pact was ‘profoundly in America’s strategic interest as well.’ ‘Getting this done together sends a powerful message that America and Korea are partners for the long-term and that America is fully embracing its role as a Pacific power,’ she said.” [Reuters, 4/16/11]

The U.S.-South Korea trade agreement expanded the market for U.S. exports and supports American jobs.

According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, “The entry into force of the U.S.-Korea trade agreement on March 15, 2012 means countless new opportunities for U.S. exporters to sell more Made-in-America goods, services, and agricultural products to Korean customers – and to support more good jobs here at home.” [“New Opportunities for U.S. Exporters Under the U.S.-Korea Trade Agreement,”, accessed 5/28/14]

Sec. Clinton strengthened Open Skies agreements with countries like Japan.

Under Secretary Clinton, the State Department added 15 new Open Skies agreements, with countries like Japan. The Open Skies agreements increased competition, produced greater trade, and increased tourism through more direct services. [“Open Skies Partners,”, 2/11/14; Celebrating Open Skies Agreements,, 3/30/11]

Sec. Clinton: “I led the first delegation of American CEOs to the U.S.-ASEAN Business Forum in Cambodia.”

According to Sec. Clinton’s remarks, Delivering on the Promise of Economic Statecraft, “We are sending more trade missions, like the one I mentioned to Burma. And this summer I led the first delegation of American CEOs to the U.S.-ASEAN Business Forum in Cambodia. Three heads of state and more than a dozen key ministers were eager to engage with them. Back in Washington, we have convened conferences bringing together business leaders and government officials from more than 100 countries. We’re proud to go to bat for the Boeings and Chevrons and General Motors and so many others. But we’re also working to help industries large and small that have not been traditional exporters. Ultimately, this effort is more than hooking a big fish here and there. We want every company — American, Singaporean, or any other — to have that level playing field and a chance to compete on the merits. That is a recipe for shared prosperity.” [“Delivering on the Promise of Economic Statecraft,”, 11/17/12]