The US-China tango

The US-China tango

US President Richard Nixon had described his visit to China in February 1971 as the ‘week that changed the world’. Echoes of that sentiment appeared to resonate in the background when Hu Jintao hosted Barack Obama in Beijing during the latter’s first visit to Asia this week. And as both leaders delivered their separate statements to the world media and issued their first joint statement, which left no critical issue of our times untouched, there appeared to be very little doubt that this is indeed the most important bilateral relationship on the international stage today.
The coming decades may well assess this admittedly high on symbolism meeting, as yet another historic turning point in the changing dynamics of post-Soviet world order. To be sure, the yin and yang of containment and engagement that characterises America’s China policy palpably lurked in the background. There is however no gainsaying the general and specific milieu in which the visit between the ‘troubled superpower and the coming megapower’ has taken place.

Decisive role
The enlarging political and strategic footprint of a rising China across the world, no less than its colossal carbon footprint, testifying to its mammoth share in the global economy, has ensured that it will play a decisive role in any emerging power equation in the coming decades.

 Equally, the immediate context of the ongoing global financial crisis, and Obama’s appreciation of China’s supportive role in that regard, underscored the increasing interdependence and interconnectedness between the first and third largest economies – as also the other countries of the world. It is also not difficult to comprehend the rationale behind Obama’s declaration that he had no intention of containing China’s rise, and that in an interconnected world, “power is no longer a zero-sum game.”

Obama arrived in China after ‘bowing’ to the Japanese monarchs and conveying a renewed American commitment to redressing economic imbalances at the APEC Summit meeting in Singapore.
He was well aware of the general skepticism regarding US ‘protectionist’ policies over the past year, as also the fact that China has been considerably more appreciated and lauded during this time. Chinese leaders are equally cognisant of the new US administration’s attempt at recasting the American role in the Asia and Pacific.
There is however a major difference. Across the broad swathe of Asia, from Central Asia at one end to the Pacific at the other, China’s role is rapidly transforming from not just a driver, but shaper of agendas – economic, political and increasingly security/strategic.

 Obama’s appropriate acknowledgement of these shifts—for which he is being pilloried back home—has ensured that even as the US rebuilds and revitalises its traditional alliances, they will now have to work in tandem with the Chinese.
It was only to be expected therefore that befitting their status, the substance of bilateral discussions between Presidents and Hu comprised just about every issue of bilateral and global concern - from regional hotspots Iran and North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the complex threats from global terrorism, from shouldering the responsibilities for dealing with climate change to tackling what is seen as a looming world food crisis.

 On the bilateral front, discussions revolved around the irritants arising out of trade disputes involving a range of products to revaluing the yuan, to questions on Tibet, the Dalai Lama, human rights and religion. Obama in fact did place on record the US desire to see the negotiations between Beijing and the representatives of the Dalai Lama begun at the earliest.
They agreed to give greater focus to their Strategic Economic Dialogue and Beijing has also agreed to a new round of dialogue on ‘rights’ issues with the US early in 2010. That will probably be Obama’s reply – howsoever unsatisfactory – to domestic criticism of his refusal to meet the Dalai Lama before his visit to Beijing. 

Possible outrage
Any possible outrage in India arising out of the reference to South Asia in the joint statement and Obama’s acknowledgement of China’s potentially useful mediatory role in India-Pak relations, needs to be tempered by a hard reality check with regard to the entirely different nature of the Sino-US strategic importance compared to the Indo-US strategic ties.

 South Asia is well on its way to being acknowledged as the hub of global terrorism and will, not surprisingly, figure in the discussions of two global powers of the day, especially if one of them is a neighbour to this hot spot. Equally, Obama will undoubtedly be informed by the Indian prime minister when he visits the US shortly, that given China’s ‘special’ relationship with Pakistan and their rather suspicious conventional military and nuclear cooperation, India will not countenance any such mediation, if indeed it is being conceived. And China for its part will have to ponder on the implications of what will certainly be seen in India as Sino-US collusion on South Asia, for the Sino-Indian strategic partnership.
Harmonious India-China ties are crucial for the realisation of the Asian century. Analysts speculate that a rising India will make the triangular US-China-India relationship also of no mean importance in the reshaping international relations. That may well be so – but it is merely a scenario – and more importantly, a scenario which critically hinges on India’s rise materialising decisively over the next decade or so.
(The writer is an associate professor at school of international studies, JNU)