China’s President Hu Jintao went to Washington seeking “common ground,” but he met with an Obama administration that’s become more hard-nosed in its approach to China than during its previous two years.
The most consequential challenge for US foreign policy is dealing with the prospect of an emerging power transition involving China. Washington sent unambiguous signals that it won’t allow growing Chinese power in Asia-Pacific go unchallenged.
Not surprisingly, the Asian region closely watched the diplomatic dance between China and the US. This included India.
The Asian watchers were thus heartened by the latest developments: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was vocal about China’s human-rights record. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates underscored that US would counter China’s military build-up in the Pacific. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner expressed Washington’s growing impatience with China’s resistance to the renminbi appreciating in value.
The Hu-Obama summit and the hardening US line follow a year of China’s assertive diplomatic and military posture towards its neighbours provoking anxiety. New alignments emerge as the balance of power in Asia-Pacific undergoes a transformation. The region is witnessing great-power politics at its most pristine.
When Obama visited China in November 2009, his administration had ideas about China as fulcrum of stability in Asia-Pacific and was keen on reviving cooperation with China on global issues. China’s growing economic and political clout prompted the Obama administration to toy then with the idea of G-2, a global condominium of two nations, whereby China could look after and “manage” the Asia-Pacific region.
The Obama administration went all out to woo Beijing – Obama refused to meet the Dalai Lama, did not raise the issue of human rights while visiting China, postponed the decision to sell arms to Taiwan and downgraded India in the US strategic calculus.
India went from being viewed by the US as rising power and balancer in the Asia-Pacific region to a regional South Asian actor, relevant for the US only to ensure that Pakistan confronted the Taliban with full vigour without getting preoccupied in Kashmir.
By doing so, the Obama administration unwittingly signalled that it was more interested in managing America’s decline than in preserving its pre-eminence in the global order. After rejecting balance-of-power politics as a relic of the past, the Obama administration no longer had a strategic framework for viewing and organizing its Asia policy. And China read the stance as a symbol of US decline, seeing an opportunity to assert itself as never before. In response, major players in the region started reevaluating their own security doctrines, seeking to hedge their bets vis-à-vis potential threats from China and unwillingness on the part of the US to play the role of regional balancer.
The idea of “Chimerica” was always too good to be true. But the rapidity with which Sino-US ties unravelled over the past few months even surprised those who were initially cynical about Barack Obama’s overtures to China. Washington was forced to fight back to retain its pre-eminence in the Asian balance of power. The choice of the four states that Obama visited in November 2010 – India, South Korea, Indonesia and Japan – was aimed at reminding China that US still retains its role as principle balancing force in the region. All four worry about China’s rise and recent attempts to assert its interests more forcefully in the region. There is a clamour for American leadership in the region as none of the regional states want China to emerge as the dominant actor. The expectation is that a stronger US presence in the region provides greater stability.
The US has tried to calm nerves in Asia by its recent moves and pronouncements vis-à-vis China. But there are still widespread doubts in the region about America’s willingness or ability to provide counterbalancing capabilities. Major states in Asia, including Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and India, worry about the possibility of US and China dealing with each other at the others’ expense. And so, even as they continue to push for more proactive American engagement with Asia, they are busy charting their own course. Japan’s new defence policy, bolstering Japanese forces in the southern islands around Okinawa, is explicitly aimed at countering the dangers posed by a rising China. Tokyo and Seoul work together to expand military ties and reach out to like-minded powers such as New Delhi. Southeast Asian states are increasing defence spending like never before and seeking Indian engagement in the region as a deterrent against Chinese prowess. Unlike many in Washington, policymakers in Asia seem under no illusion about China’s will to power and the dangers of Chinese hegemony in the region.
Even as New Delhi is being sought after to play a greater regional role, it must tread a careful path given a rapid deterioration of Sino-Indian ties in recent years. After trying to brush significant divergences with Beijing under the carpet for years, New Delhi policymakers are forced to acknowledge, grudgingly so, that the relationship is increasingly contentious. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested just a few weeks ago that “China would like to have a foothold in South Asia and we have to reflect on this reality....It’s important to be prepared.”
The substantive diplomatic outcome of the visit of the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India last December was also underwhelming. Beijing refused to acknowledge Indian concerns over the Jammu and Kashmir visa question and the growing Chinese presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and failed to condemn terrorist groups operating from Pakistan to target India. Among major global powers, China alone has so far refrained from supporting India’s campaign to win a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
For its part, India played hardball on the issues of importance to China. New Delhi, in a first, did not reiterate support for the “One China” policy and refused explicit recognition of the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of Chinese territory.
“We are friends, not rivals,” Wen said in India. But a growing number of Indians view China as a competitor. More damagingly, a perception is gaining ground that among the major global powers, China alone does not accept India as a rising player that needs to be accommodated in the global political order. Tensions between the two neighbours remain deep-seated, and their increasing economic strength and rising geopolitical standing have given rise to rapidly growing ambitions on both sides.
Even as India’s ties with the US once again gather momentum in recent months, Sino-Indian relations have stalled. Like most states in the region India too has a key stake in the trajectory of Sino-US ties. As a new balance of power takes shape in Asia and China becomes more assertive, India hopes and many other states in the region want India to emerge as an indispensable element in that architecture. The question remains: Given the lack of political leadership in New Delhi and an absence of strategic vision, can India capitalize in the opportunities that the changing international order is presenting?
Harsh V. Pant teaches in King’s College, London. Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online