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US-China Summit – Looking at the Asia-Pacific Region

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s State visit to the US (Jan. 18-21) has been described by some veteran observer of US-China relations as the most important Chinese visit to the US since late Deng Xiaoping’s 32 years ago. That signal visit ushered in the real interface between the world’s strongest power and the post-Mao Zedong Communist China, a poor but determined country led by Deng Xiaoping. The astute Deng recognized very early that China’s future greatness was dependent upon relationship with the US. But not for a moment did he forget that the basic US policy was to change the communist China to a western modeled capitalist country. Deng’s theory of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was multi-dimensional. Apart from state controlled market economy, be ensured a quiet erosion of hard line Marxism which was an obstacle to development and international relations.

Hu Jintao arrived in Washington on January 18 as the head of country very different from 1978.  In some manner China was hot on USA’s heels. In its overall economic power in terms of numbers it has nudged aside Japan as the No.2 in the world. Some suggest that China may have even surpassed the USA.

Over the last two years at least, there has been a surge among China’s military establishment to dominate, as they say figuratively, half the world. The Chinese leadership seemed to have psyched themselves to a new high with these large scales, modernized exercise like “Stride 2009” and national day awesome display of arms and equipment in 2009 that stirred the imagination of the Chinese people. These developments were followed by the unveiling of new armament and equipment including the propaganda of the DF-21D aircraft killer ballistic missile under development, specifically aimed at American aircraft carriers in the region.

The combination of economic and military power revealed a new Chinese characteristic which many including this writer had long expected and projected- a disdain for weaker neighbours, and active threat to usurp international sea lones as China’s territory, if needed by force. Through the entire year of 2010 China’s assertive behavior, especially that of the military establishment   grew   so   rapidly   that   it   could   have   sparked off  a   war on the Korean peninsula. Chinese leaders would find it difficult to honestly deny that North Korea’s brinkmanship like sinking a South Korean navy frigate and shelling of South Korean island last year, were due to a great degree of accommodation from Beijing.

China’s gunboat backed claims on disputed maritime territories from the Senkaku Islands with Japan and down to the Spratly Islands last year raised alarm in the region. In addition, efforts expand its “core interests” from Taiwan and Tibet to the disputed areas, a potential to instigate “local wars” must be taken obviously. When the Chinese Chief talks officially about preparations for such local wars, it is a cause for worry for its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR).

President Hu Jintao arrived in the USA in the atmosphere of chill in bilateral relations. China was content with US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing that it was the time to consolidate its domination of APR. But when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in mid-2009 that America was coming back to the region with a new strategy which included old enemies like Vietnam as partners, China decided to take a confrontationist approach.

It was evident the hyperactive People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was dominating in some aspects of foreign policy especially in the neighbourhood and with the US. The PLA suspended military contacts with the USA for eight months after Washington approved to supply $6.2 billion of military supplies in end 2009. It was largely believed that Hu Jintao was in consonance with the PLA’s views.

The Chinese went so far as to insult President Barack Obama at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December, 2009, especially when on visit to China a month before Obama had extended a warm and friendly hand to China. In diplomacy, insulting a head of state of any country by sending low level officials to interact with is just not done. China, however, encouraged by its new found power, abused this internationally accepted code of conduct. Such behavior tends metamorphise in dangerous dimension in other areas of interaction, if such a country is allowed a free run. Has the chill in the US-China relations thawed after the Hu Jintao’s visit? To an extent, but Obama had his way with some sharp statements at the joint press conference, but with a little more careful positioning in the joint statement.

President Barack Obama’s statement in the press conference, many of which he said he had conveyed to Hu Jintao can be described by the cliché blowing “hot and cold”. It appeared that Copenhagen was rankling in his mind, and his advisors reportedly told him to make certain things clear.

Prefacing his opening remarks at the press meet with some encouraging words on improved economic relations, he made it abundantly clear that he remained very concerned with China’s artificial low value of its currency, the REMMINBI (RMB), and conveyed that “America will not allow any nation to have undue economic advantage”.

While appreciating China’s contribution to the economic growth of the APR, Obama also made it clear that America’s forward presence in the region had made that possible, and helped maintain development and stability. Basically, Obama asserted that US was there to stay affirmatively including militarily, and also partake of the fruits of the Asia-Pacific century.

Expectedly, North Korea was a critical issue during the visit. It has now emerged that about a month before this visit Obama called him and warned that if North Korea was not restrained US will move its forces to the region. This warning was repeated in the bilateral talks and a watered down version was mentioned in the joint statement and at the press conference. China’s interlocution with Pyongyang subsequent to Obama’s warning helped restrain the Kim Kong-Il regime.

President Obama did not shirk from fully reiterating America’s position on Taiwan, committing to the “One-China” policy and the three joint communiqué on the issue, but also reaffirmed USA’s Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which basically makes USA incumbent to come to Taiwan’s aid in case of an armed attack by China on Taiwan. Currently, more than one thousand short range Chinese missiles are deployed against Taiwan.Obama made it clear that measured military supplies to Taiwan will continue to balance the military situation across the Taiwan Strait, US concerns with China’s human rights policy will continue, and the US wanted to see a resolution of the Tibet issue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama’s representatives for the cultural, religious and linguistic independence of the Tibetans in Tibet.

The question, how the US looked at China’s “peaceful rise” at the press conference was interestingly answered by Obama. While welcoming China’s rise as an instrument to the development of the region, Obama made it clear that this welcome was linked to China “responsible behaviour” in the region and globally. US will not allow a strong China to brow beat its weaker neighbours and convert them into Chinese principalities.

In his response, President Hu Jintao’s most telling response was that his talks with President Obama were “candid, pragmatic, and constructive”- diplomatese for the talks leaving significant differences, yet with issues which were real and would be deliberated further.

Later, at a luncheon meeting hosted by China’s friends in America, President Hu Jintao took offense to President Obama’s remarks on Taiwan and Tibet. He emphasized that these two issued were China’s internal affairs and does not brook outside interferences.

The Chinese official media was at work to eulogize Hu Jintao’s image back home. The publication of the joint press conference and, especially the joint statement, were not true to the original scripts. For example, Obama’s emphasis on the RMB valuation and the Tibetan issue were not mentioned in the Chinese versions. There were other dilutions, too.

Two other developments which seemed to have sullied the visit somewhat were first, the boycott of the State dinner for President Hu by the Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner.  That was an insult to Hu cutting across party lines in the US. The other was again a bipartisan meeting of the US House Foreign Affairs Panel when the Obama – Hu talks were going on, castigating the Chinese leader as a “dictator” of a “Gulag State”. These, obviously, did not find mention in the Chinese media.

The controlled Chinese media reported the visit focused on economic issues, giving a wide berth to the strategic contents of the visit. The reportage focused mainly on the positives of economic relations and Hu Jintao pushing for a “win-win” relationship abjuring a “Zero Sum” game.

Hu Jintao’s stature and that of China’s had to be protected by the Chinese media. There was a vested attempt at projecting that China was now dealing with the US on equal terms. But in an article, the People’s Daily on Line editor, Ms. Li Hongmei, made it clear that China was still no match for the US either in economic terms or military strength.

Ms. Li Hongmei published this article as her own view and not that of the People’s Daily on Line. She is a powerful person backed by a strong section of the Party’s Politburo. She did do some damage to Hu Jintao by some left handed compliments at a time when Hu needs recorded achievement as he prepares to demit office, not necessarily power and influence, from the autumn of 2012. Ms. Li almost directly alluded that the Chinese people love their “face” and the official media was doing exactly that – saving Hu Jintao’s face.

The countries in the Asia-Pacific Region would be quite happy with the outcome of this visit. They want stability and prosperity, and benefits from a growing China which does not threaten them. Only a strong presence of the US can assure such a situation. Any imbalance from either side is not a happy thought for them.

Of course, China will continue to promote economic exchanges with the countries in the region. But its belligerent behaviour in the last one year raised alarm in all these countries. Japan declared its concerns and reciprocal measures in its December, 2010 Defence White Paper. Erstwhile Australian Prime Minister who is now foreign minister, Kevin Reidd, otherwise known as a “Panda hugger”, was actually acutely aware of China’s intentions as revealed by the WikiLeaks. Australia’s 10-year defence review published last year took into serious consideration China’s growing military posture, especially naval and cyber warfare.

China has been propounding “encirclement of China” theory to create political and strategic ambience of victimization to build its military machinery much beyond its actual needs. This is a ploy to dominate the region including South Asia, as was witnessed in 2010.

China’s bluff has been called. What one can see at the movement in that China has decided to reemploy Deng Xiaoping’s strategic advice of “keep a low profile, and bide time while concentrating on development”. But it is very difficult to accept that the “Central Kingdom” has changed any of its ambition to dominate half the global from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific Region.

At the end of Hu Jintao’s landmark US visit, Beijing would be disappointed to see that there was no change in Washington’s policy on the “three-Ts”, that is, Taiwan, Tibet and Trade. Nor did Hu Jintao give on Taiwan and Tibet, issues of China’s sovereignty, but may have to give on the RMB factor which also benefit the Asia-Pacific Region.

This, however, does not signal an extended period of stability, security and prosperity in the region. What actually has happened is that the region has become a more excitable geopolitical play ground with more cards hidden than shown.

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

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