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President Obama's Asia Swing: Not Very Harmonious for South Asia

Just before US President Barack Obama embarked on his first tour of East Asia, swinging through Japan, Singapore (for the APEC Summit), China and South Korea earlier this month, he opened his gambit with a very weak hand. He postponed his meeting with the Tibetan leader Dalai Lama till after his China visit.

Parts of President Obama’s joint declaration (November 17) with Chinese President Hu Jintao have raised concerns in India and the Asia-Pacific Region whether the US administration is giving half the world for China to dominate.

China used President Obama’s decision on not meeting the Dalai Lama to the hilt. It is another matter he will meet the Dalai Lama at a convenient time after his China visit. Beijing used its official media to tell the world literally that the most powerful USA “bent” to the Chinese demand because of China’s global importance.

What the Chinese said is not untrue. French President Nicholas Sarkozy, after an initial strong position, succumbed to China’s economic blackmail on the Dalai Lama. Many countries are adopting positions that appease the Chinese in economic interest which will have serious impact on human rights, religion, culture and even truth in history. This particular issue does not impact the Dalai Lama only but the entire future of democratic morality across the world.

China has told the entire world that they are going to corner and devalue the Dalai Lama’s credit across the globe, and anyone who does business with him does it at his own peril. This is sheer blackmail, and the Chinese having divided the western world using the economic lever has taken to this strategy is a series of moves still to come. It is of some solace, however, that all have not fallen into the trap.

About a fortnight before Mr. Obama’s tour, Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew told a gathering in the USA that America must refocus in the Asia Pacific region to balance China. Mr. Lee is recognized as the region’s prime visionary and is highly respected and listened to even by China’s top leaders. The George W. Bush administration, pre-occupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine lost touch with Asia.

The Obama administration is supposed to be engaged in a readjustment of foreign policy, giving high priority to economy and reasonable cooperation rather than confrontation. The Asia Pacific Region is the region of the 21st century, where economic activity has shifted from Europe. Yet, the US President did not carry any serious economic agenda. His Japan visit with the new DJP party with Prime Minister Yukio Hatayama in power was basically colourless, Hatayama declining to discuss US shifting troops from Okinowa at a high level. But in each of the three countries – Japan, Singapore and South Korea, Mr. Obama appeared to looking over to his shoulders at China. He failed to exploit the turf in South East Asia that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid a few months earlier.

The Chinese leaders did not give Mr. Obama anything. There was ‘not yet’ on Chinese currency Yuan revaluation. No success in reducing their huge trade gap between the two countries. On strategic issues, China refused to back stronger sanctions on Iran. On the North Korean nuclear issue, China opened the gate a little for direct US-North Korea nuclear talks. China, however, reserved its rights to remain the main interlocutor for Pyongyang.

The joint statement issued at the end of the China visit suggests some concessions from the American side which may become difficult to handle in the future. But two aspects of the joint statement stand out, because their interpretation and application can seriously destabilize both East Asia and the Pacific region, and South Asia.

During President Bill Clinton’s visit to China in June, 1998 he had also conceded to the Chinese on both Taiwan and South Asia, especially India’s nuclear programme. Mr. Clinton had two problems knocking on his door. One was India’s nuclear tests in May that year for which he had to make certain public postures. The other was illegal Chinese funding and other issues connected with his elections. But he kept them in words. Mr. Obama has signed on paper. The Chinese not only held Mr. Obama to the three joint communiqués signed between the two countries which guide US-China relations with Taiwan as the core, but this time made territorial integrity and sovereignty as the core which, in China’s interpretation, would be no US interference in case China uses force to take over Taiwan. More importantly, he did not mention the Taiwan Relation Act (TRA) of the US Congress which enjoins the US President to consider coming to the aid of Taipei if Beijing uses force. True, the mainland Taiwan relations, have greatly improved after Prime Minister Ma Ying Jeou’s party defeated the anti-China DPP. But even Mr. Ma has made it clear that relations are impeded by China’s military threat, with almost 1300 Chinese missiles targeting the island. Since the Democratic Party came to power in the USA last year, all military co-operation with Taiwan has come to a stop.

For India, the most galling part of the Obama – Hu Jintao joint statement was the references to the India-Pakistan issue and that of South Asia. The first was agreement between the two countries to “support the improvement and growth of relations between India aid Pakistan” The next was to “strengthen communication, dialogue and co-operation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in the region”. This happened in the run up to Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s state visit to the USA starting November 23, touted by the White House and the US State Department as first head of state being hosted by President Barack Obama. India is being spoken of as an ally and strategic partner of the US. One does not deny President Obama’s sincere desire to bring even closer together the world’s most powerful democracy and the world largest democracy. The Indian Foreign Ministry responded with correct and dignified position that there was no room for a third country to enter into the India-Pakistan dialogue which was based on the Shimla declaration. The White House and the State Department tried a hasty damage control saying that the India-Pakistan issue was bilateral. China thought carefully and came out with similar official response. While the US may keep to their corrected version, China’s position is tactical as we have recently witnessed on India-China relations. This part of the US-China joint declaration is kept in China’s strategic bank.

But not much has been said on the South Asia prescription in the joint communiqué. This must also be read with another point of the joint communiqué in the South Asia context, that is China’s new role to counter terrorism and help in development in Afghanistan and Pakistan. US Under Secretary of State for the region Robert Blake explains China’s role as it has substantial equity in Afghanistan. One of them is the Aynak copper mine in Afghanistan, one of the largest deposits of the much sought after metal. It now transpires that China bribed the Afghan Minister for Mines to get this contract. Of course, China maintains links with all parties involved in Afghanistan. Pakistan is its time tested ally and friend. It has contacts with the Taliban, the Karzai group and the old northern alliance players. But it has special interest of its own which the US will find difficult to handle eventually.

Certainly, the US, UK and others want to get out of Afghanistan. But there needs to be a proper exit strategy, not like the last time. Strategically, Pakistan and Afghanistan are very important to Washington. China also sees these two countries as of their vital strategic and security interests. They want the US out of there. How closely have the Americans, especially the intelligence and security agencies, the Pentagon and the State Department examined the Af-Pak issue? From what can be seen, confusion and adhocism reigns. The only consensus appears to be that Pakistan is key to the Afghan solution, but with the knowledge that the Pak intelligence (ISI) and army support to the Afghan Taliban remains and will continue. So what is the next move?

China claims to be a responsible player and the US seems to conceding to that view, at least for now. But is it really? Its track record is simply not convincing. For example, terrorism. Although it officially joined the international counter-terrorism effort led by the USA, it did so only after making the US accept the Earlier Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Xinjiang a terrorist organization. Its record on counter-terrorism is dubious. It only concentrates on the Uighur and Tibetan movements, but declines to vote in the UNSC Pakistan army/ISI created Lashker-e-Toiba (LET) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) leaders as terrorists. One reason is that these two organizations are fighting against India. The other reason is that they want to broker a deal with the Islamic terrorists that they do not target China.

An increasing amount of evidence, not only information, is coming out lately about Chinese assistance to militants and separatists like the ULFA and the NSCN (I/M) operating in north-east India. Some of these arms have been finding their way to other Indian insurgent groups and the Maoists. According to latest information from Bangladeshi sources, ULFA Commander-in-Chief Paresh Barua has relocated himself from Dhaka to the Yunnan province of China bordering Myanmar (Burma) after the new government in Bangladesh started cracking down on them.

On territorial issues apart from the India-China border question, China’s unrelenting thrust to fully acquire the Spartly Islands in South China sea and the Senkaku Islands held by Japan in the East China sea, are issues to judge Beijing strategic character. When President Obama acquiesced to a Chinese role in South Asia, did his advisors note China’s new position on Kashmir, especially Indian Kashmiris, giving them stapled visas. Now China is trying to enter Indian Kashmir politics by inviting the Hurriyat conference leader Mirwaiz Omar Farook for a visit. He has been invited by Chinese Muslim NGO, and everyone knows a functioning NGO in China is an official entity.

There are other serious Chinese thrusts in India’s neighbourhood to create if not anti-India states but at least anti-India political and civil society entities.

In Washington, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have a lot of questions and clarifications to ask. These would include China’s objection to the India-US nuclear deal and trying to seek a similar deal with Pakistan, Chinese nuclear and missile proliferation on which a lot of information have become public lately, and terrorism in all its dimensions including China’s position. The India-US partnership, if it has to have real value, will depend on transparency between the two sides and people of the two countries. The US-China joint communiqué must be addressed in Washington very publicly. Otherwise, there will be a new distrust between the two countries, especially in India.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi.Email:grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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