The speech Hillary Clinton gave in Washington last week to mark the 40th anniversary of Nixon's visit to China didn't get much attention. Other than Linda Jakobson's short post, on which more below, I've seen no reference to it here in Australia or in US media.

But the speech deserves careful attention, because some of what it says about the US-China relationship is very different from what President Obama said here in Canberra last November. It gently but unmistakably steps away from Obama's insistence on the preservation of US primacy in Asia and his rejection of any negotiation with China on their respective roles. So it might reflect the beginnings of a serious debate in America about the wisdom of trying to contain China rather than accommodate it. 

Much of the speech is boilerplate, of course, but Clinton didn't talk as much as she has previously about preserving American leadership as the key to Asia's future (for example, in her October 2010 speech in Hawaii). 

More importantly, she several times said that Asia will need a new order which will be very different from the status quo, plainly implying that America's role will therefore be different too. She also clearly suggested that this new order will have to be negotiated between China and America, and admitted that this will be unprecedented for America, and very hard to do. Here are some sample quotes:  

All this adds up to a very different kind of relationship than the one we had...For two nations with long traditions of independence, deeply rooted in our cultures and our histories, these are unusual circumstances to say the least. They require adjustments in our thinking and our actions, on both sides of the Pacific. And so, how do we respond to what is not just a new challenge to our two countries, but I would argue, an unprecedented challenge in history?

We are, together, building a model in which we strike a stable and mutually acceptable balance between cooperation and competition. This is uncharted territory. And we have to get it right, because so much depends on it.

Interdependence means that one of us cannot succeed unless the other does as well. We need to write a future that looks entirely different from the past. This is, by definition, incredibly difficult. But we have done difficult things before.

These are small steps, admittedly, but they lead in a very different direction from Obama's Canberra speech. 

That impression is strengthened by the much warmer tone Clinton used in speaking of China's achievements, by the very modest references she made to the Administration's strategic pivot to Asia (she didn't use the phrase, and barely touched on the military aspects of US engagement at all) and by the absence of any reference to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These were the centrepieces of Obama's speech. Indeed, Clinton did not mention Obama's Canberra speech at all, which is striking in itself.

Why does this matter? Well, the bad news is that China will no longer accept US primacy. The good news is that American primacy is not essential to Asian stability, as long as the US can retain some kind of major role. That means there is a chance to avoid escalating strategic competition, but only if Washington and Beijing negotiate an agreement on their respective roles that concedes China enough extra weight to satisfy it, but also leaves the US as a key player. 

We do not know whether such a deal is possible, but the only way to find out is for them to start talking. To do this, America must step back from Obama's position of last November, and say instead that it is open to negotiations with China about their respective roles in Asia.

This would be today's equivalent of Nixon's game-changing statesmanship. Clinton did not go that far last week, but she took those critical first steps in the right direction. Good for her. Bob Carr take note.

PS: Like Linda, I noted that Australia was left out of the speech, and wondered why. As she says, it seems a notable omission in view of the profile Australia has had in US treatment of the China issue in recent months. I do not want to over-interpret the data, but the omission adds weight to the argument that Clinton's speech was intended to step away from the policy set out in Obama's Canberra speech and symbolised by the Marines in Darwin announcement. 

Photo by Flickr user Raul P.