Asia watchers have been consumed in past weeks with parsing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's blunt declaration that the United States will play a role in South China Sea territorial issues. Applauding Mrs. Clinton's tougher stance on China from the sidelines are America's military elites, especially those forward deployed in the Pacific Ocean.
The big question is whether all this signals a more fundamental shift in the Obama administration's China policy. For years, Pacific Command—which oversees all American military operations from the west coast of America to the east coast of Africa—has talked more about "dialogue" with China than the threat the country's opaque military build-up presents toAmerica and its allies. That view largely echoed the stance of their civilian bosses, from Presidents Reagan to George W. Bush.
No more: In Congressional testimony earlier this year, new Pacific Command chief Admiral Robert Willard noted China's "unabated" military buildup and concluded that it appeared "designed to challenge our freedom of action in the [Asia-Pacific]." Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that he's "moved from being curious" about what China is doing, "to being concerned about what they're doing." And new Pacific Fleet Commander Patrick Walsh said that China is putting the South China Sea's vital trade routes "at risk" over its various territorial claims.
Many U.S. officers and senior civilian employees at Pacific Command with whom I spoke last week agree with this view. Now they want their bosses in Honolulu and Washington to back up their talk with action so that the U.S. doesn't "give up any water space" to China. They cite, in particular, China's territorial claims over the South China Sea; its illegal seizure of Philippine and Vietnamese islands; and its skirmishes with fishing boats off the coast of Indonesia and Vietnam.
The recent tough rhetoric should at least serve to comfort America's Pacific allies, many of whom are worried about China's rise and America's commitment to the region. Japan has complained to Beijing about its navy poking around Japanese islands. Australia's defense ministry has voiced concern about the end of America's "unipolar moment" in the Pacific, and what that means for their nation's defense. Taiwan continues to demand that China remove the thousands of missiles Beijing points at the democratic island.
The next step is for the Obama administration to match words with action. Officials at Pacific Command and nations in Southeast Asia alike are concerned that Washington's new rhetoric won't be acted upon. Although the U.S. conducts 350 port visits per year, hosts numerous maritime training operations with various nations and last month restarted military-to-military ties with Indonesia, there is a concern that all of this is reactive. Looming in the background is the budget axe being wielded by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and shipbuilding trends that predict fewer U.S. submarines and surface ships over the next quarter-century.
The U.S. could relieve such concerns in part by rethinking the traditional hub-and-spoke approach to America's alliances. There needs to be a firmer push for trilateral and quadrilateral meetings among America and its closest partners in the region, including Japan, South Korea and Australia. The meetings should focus on core security issues such as missile defense, antisubmarine warfare and surface patrols. Simultaneously, Washington needs to forge more strategic ties to Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries worried about China's rise and who occupy geostrategically important locations.
Secretary Clinton's words may represent a new realism in U.S. policy, not only toward China, but toward America's responsibilities to uphold stability, promote security and help shape a more democratic future for the Asia-Pacific region. Her words are a good beginning. Breathing life into them will be the difficult next step.
Mr. Auslin is director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.