Wednesday, January 19, 2011

U.S-China: Friends or Foes?

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China has emerged as a leading economic power next only in importance to the US. It is seeking to achieve a military capability commensurate with its economic strength, but its military capability cannot equal that of the US for many years to come. The US has no reason to fear China's growing military strength. Both can have their space in the Pacific without threatening each other. Hopes of a greater sense of realism and a greater comfort level between the two countries after Barack Obama assumed office in January 2009 have been belied. The expectations created after Obama's visit to China in November 2009 have remained unfulfilled. The time has come for mid-course corrections in their policies towards each other by the two countries. President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao should address this question during their talks in Washington DC.

2. These are broadly the themes voiced by governmental and non-governmental personalities in China as Hu started his current bilateral visit to the US on January 18---- his second since he took over as the Chinese President. The first was in April 2006, when George Bush was the US President.

3.The disquiet in the Chinese mind over the way the relations have evolved under Obama is evident from an editorial titled " Sino-US relationship must be better defined" carried by the Communist Party-controlled "Global Times" on January 18, the day Hu arrived in Washington to be welcomed at the Andrews Air Force base by Vice-President Joe Biden. His only engagement on the day of his arrival was a private dinner with Obama. The State visit starts on January 19.

4. The "Global Times" wrote : "As the two most powerful countries in the world, China and the US should clarify their relationship, and lay speculations to rest. It is not easy to give this bilateral relationship a clear definition, but perhaps they can start from what it is not. The US has been running the table on how to position Sino-US relations. Former President Bill Clinton declared it a constructive strategic partnership. But it has retreated from those heady days. The word "partnership" is still mentioned, but no longer recorded in official documents, replaced by terms such as "constructive cooperation" or "stakeholders." It shows the US' misgivings in taking China as a friend. But is China a foe of the US? US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates openly stated that China is not a potential enemy of the US. Attempts to drive a wedge between the two countries have not gained traction in the US and the West. President Hu's visit will be placed under a global microscope. It is good timing for Washington to declare that China and the US are not enemies today, and will not be in the future. This clarification will remove many uncertainties that may jeopardize global stability."

5. As Hu arrived, comments from US officials would not have been very encouraging for the Chinese. The emphasis was not on a strategic partnership, but on achieving a "workable" relationship.A curtain-raiser commentary on the visit by the Agence France Presse (AFP) said:"The White House has minutely planned the visit, with top members of Obama's national security team, frankly laying out areas of disagreement - though also stressing the vital nature of workable relations to America's future. Washington has also made clear it wants to talk to China about moderating its ally North Korea's belligerence, and officials said they believe their pressure on Beijing on the issue might be beginning to show results. On Tuesday, the White House was forced to defend the decision to offer a state visit to Hu, despite the fact that the two sides appear to be as far apart as ever on crucial human rights questions. "We will continue to have difficult conversations, but necessary conversations that have to be had with China and we'll do that again tomorrow," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters. "In order to make progress on certain issues you've seen the two countries work together, despite, again, continuing to have differences on things like continued economic growth and human rights."

6. The remarks of Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, on the relations between China and the US made last week would not have been music to the ears of the Chinese. She was quoted as saying: "This is not a relationship that fits neatly into the black and white categories like friend or rival.We are two complex nations with very different histories, with profoundly difficult political systems and outlooks."

7. The call for a re-definition of the relationship to restore its importance in the US foreign policy making has come not only from Chinese analysts and sections of the Chinese media such as the "Global Times". It has also come from former US policy-makers such as Zbigniew Brzezinski , former National Security Adviser, and Henry Kissinger, former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. The Chinese have been highlighting with considerable nostalgie that Hu's visit coincides with the 40 th anniversary of the first secret visit of Kissinger to China in July 1971, which set the ball rolling for a rappochement between the US and China which benefitted the US greatly in its cold war with the USSR.

8. The Chinese have also been recalling wistfully a reported remark of Kissinger during one of his visits to China that all US Presidents understand the importance of China, but do not have a proper understanding of China when they come to office.

9. The Chinese are hoping that the definite downward slide in the US-China relations during 2010 was only due to the inadequate understanding of China by Obama and that as result of the current talks with Hu, inadequacies in understanding will be removed and 2011 will see a turn for the better in the bilateral relations.

10. Beijing does not seem to understand that whatever be the warm words used by Obama and others during his visit to Washington, the question mark over China has become even bigger in the eyes of the Americans due to their assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, their unwillingness to pressure North Korea to behave, their accelerated military-build-up and the growing signs of the increasing role of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in external policy making---particularly with regard to relations with the US.

11. The Chinese action in holding the first test flight of their stealth aircraft when Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, was on a visit to Beijing from January 9 to 12 to improve military-military relations has added to the concerns of the US regarding China's real military intentions. It has been seen as a blatant Chinese attempt to flaunt their growing military might when Gates was in Beijing.

12. This was an extremely insensitive action on their part which has made the Americans ask themselves even more intensely than in the past: Is China a friend or foe?

13. Hu wants to reassure the Americans that whatever it might or might not do, China is a friend of the US. Will he be able to carry conviction? (19-1-11)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.