The following editorial first appeared in the Kansas City Star:
One of the first things Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did on assuming office was inform China that human rights should not be allowed to "interfere" with more important matters.
Given Beijing's penchant for bullying both its own people and its neighbors, this was not a good message. Fortunately, the Obama administration has taken a firmer line of late.
At a regional security forum, Clinton declared that peaceful settlement of the tangled claims to two island chains in the South China Sea is a U.S. "national interest." The claims, she said, should be decided through a "collaborative diplomatic process ... without coercion."
That may sound like harmless boilerplate, but the Chinese were not amused. Beijing does not want the long-running disputes over the Spratly and Paracel island chains to be "internationalized."
China, in other words, would prefer to continue intimidating interested nations - Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - one at a time.
The disputed island groups straddle heavily traveled sea lanes, are rich fisheries and are believed to hold significant petroleum deposits.
The Chinese have declared the South China Sea a "core interest." In 1974, China evicted Vietnam from the western Paracels. In 1988, Beijing sank three Vietnamese naval vessels in a sea battle. In 1995, China seized Mischief Reef - in the Spratlys - from the Philippines.
Clinton's statement sent the constructive message that China's unrestrained ambitions in the South China Sea will be met with opposition. It's about time.