Hu's Visit Shouldn't Worry US
Amb Kanwal Sibal

President Hu’s just concluded US visit has naturally attracted international attention, as the challenger was meeting the champion, as it were. The US is seen as a slowly declining power, and China a rapidly rising one. The dwindling of US power worries many, even the detractors of US policies, because of unforeseeable destabilizing consequences. A larger number are, however, more anxious about what China’s spectacular ascent might entail. How the US and China relate to each other, the degree of engagement or bickering between them, the balance they establish and what might be the cost to others, will remain under close watch.

The existing global political, security and economic structure corresponds to American specifications. Many would want this US hegemony eroded, with a more multi-polar world emerging, wedded to genuine multilateralism. Power hitherto concentrated in the Euro-Atlantic area must shift to Asia, Latin America and Africa, but the transition, if possible, should be well-adjusted, without any single country acquiring excessive strength or pursuing hegemonic ambitions. It is here that China causes concern, and US policies are not re-assuring.

China already has accumulated inordinate financial power, enabling it to steadily build its political influence in various regions. It seeks to dominate its periphery, while acquiring capacities to defend its spreading global interests. Its hunger for resources is huge; the consequent vulnerability has to be guarded by growing military power. It flies into diplomatic rage when challenged on issues it considers of vital national interest. Its closest associates are North Korea and Pakistan, an unwholesome threesome for proliferating nuclear and missile technologies.

China hardly inspires confidence that its conduct, in a multi-polar setting, would be more accommodating and respectful of the interests of others than that of historically dominant countries. Its authoritarian regime, mercantlist policies and expansionist claims create legitimate apprehensions. A country that is opaque in its internal governance cannot be transparent in its external relations. Its recent comportment in stoking tensions with several of its Asian neighbours, including India, is a foretaste of the muscle-flexing it can do as its power grows.

The US is mainly responsible for China’s accelerated rise. If China is now seen as a problem in some US circles, this would not be the first case of America’s strategic mistakes recoiling on it. The US encouraged Islamic fundamentalism as a weapon against the Soviet Union, with terrible consequences for all, including the US. If Pakistan has become a migraine for the US, an epicenter of global terrorism and source of US’s strategic stultification in Afghanistan, it is again because of US misjudgments in handling it, linked to the Cold War, the relationship with China and an historically entrenched anti-india bias. The normalization of the US-China relationship in the early 70s has worked at India’s cost. In the 1980s and 90s, the US overlooked Pakistan’s nuclear and missile dealings with China and North Korea, giving Pakistan the means today to effectively blackmail both the US and India with terrorist activity under the protective cover of its nuclear capability. The way the Americans have suppressed full exposure of the A.Q.Khan case, and the complaisance with which they are viewing China’s decision to beef up Pakistan’s nuclear capability even today, is instructive for India.

The US consciously built China as a strategic counterweight to the Soviet Union, with Cold War considerations in mind, assisted later by those under its tutelage and influence, such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Corporate America, which has always salivated at the thought of exploiting a billion strong China market, helped the Chinese to develop their formidable manufacturing and export muscle over the years. Why the US strategists believed that an economically strong China, with its huge population, its long history, its authoritarian system capable of disciplining the masses and imposing huge human costs on them, its sense of grievance agains the West and Japan, could become a benign, permanently co-operative partner is unclear.

Henry Kissinger can well pontificate now how radically different are US and Chinese attitudes to problem solving and time-frames for doing so. What were his long term calculations when US courting of China began under his watch? Or those of Zbigniew Brzezenski, whose unflagging trust of the fired-up Chinese dragon contrasts with his persistent distrust of the enfeebled Russian bear. Did Kissinger expect the US to always remain in control, cede power only as much as was necessary to maximize mutual benefit, contain China’s ambitions by making their realization largely dependent on US goodwill? Did he visualize a situation of virtual financial fusion and the baleful trade interdependence between the two? Yes, this limits China’s options too, but China is not a superpower, it doesn’t control global political, security and economic institutions as the US does. This interdependence constrains US options more than those of China, as China in any case does not have such wide options within the international system.

China’s economic capacity now makes it not only critical for US financial health, but also global growth, to the point that the world now has a vested interest in the vigour of the predatory Chinese economy. The problem of global imbalances is a joint creation of US and China thrust upon the world. If the US, because of its past mistakes, cannot now wield sticks to get Pakistan in line, how can it influence China’s conduct beyond what the latter accepts tactically. The G-2 idea, in these circumstances, seems prompted less by an unabated confidence in US leadership than a defensive strategy dictated by reduced options. It is not even a practical strategy, as it is too self-centered, ignoring the claims of Russia, Japan, the EU, India or Brazil in managing a revitalized but more equitable global system.

Beyond continual mutual engagement needed to manage their “vital and complex” relationship, President Hu’s visit to Washington produced modest results. The human rights issue is a distraction imposed by US domestic lobbies, with limited material impact on the economic relationship. US role in contributing to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region is pointedly mentioned in the Joint Statement, in line with its East Asia Summit membership. The agreement to resume military contacts to remove “misunderstanding, miscalculation and misperception” will remain a fragile exercise so long as US supplies arms to Taiwan, embargoes their sale to China and the US Navy exercises in the South China Sea. On issues of the Yuan exchange rate, climate change etc, no new ground was broken.

India should view Hu’s US visit with equanimity. The absence of any reference in the Joint Statement to conjoint US-China efforts toward peace and stability in South Asia- the India/Pakistan dimension- is a welcome correction. China possibly resisted any reference to Afghanistan or Pakistan to balance this. The complex game that the US is playing with China, earlier at India’s expense, and now less so, and China plays with us by both engaging and containing us, with its propagandists claiming absurdly that US is using India to further its policy of encircling it, and that China’s toughened stance on the border issue and on Kashmir derives from this, we too should play with both in return.

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