Sino-US Summit meeting Meandering The Bumpy Road Ahead
President Hu Jintao’s four-day visit to the United States from January 18 to 21 took place in the backdrop of a roller-coastar relationship between the two countries. Ever since the relationship between the two was normalised after Henry Kissinger’s historic visit to Beijing in 1971, there have been highs and lows in their bilateral relationship. A plethora of issues determine the relationship between the USA, the only super power trying very hard to retain its pre-eminent position and China, now the second largest economy. Although there has been some degree of consensus between the two countries on issue of climate change, there are contentious issues like restructuring the world economy and the financial institutions on which there are divergence opinion between the two. The two do not agree on issues pertaining to the Korean Peninsula and the Asia-Pacific, the Iran issue and also on Af-Pak. Besides, the trade imbalance and the currency issue, not to mention Taiwan and Tibet, divide the two countries. Historically it has been seen that when a new power emerges challenging the established order, it creates some turbulence in global equilibrium and this is true about China’s rise as well, but it is equally argued that such kind of analysis may not always be true, there can be exceptions to rule.
Hu’s visit to United States, described by many as the most important in recent times, took place at a time when the relationship between the two deteriorating fast and it was a timely visit which attempted to arrest the drift. Peace still eludes the Korean Peninsula. Beijing suspended military contact with the USA after Washington approved $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan in 2009. The defence contacts between the two countries was restored when the Defence Ministers of the two countries met in Hanoi in October last year on the sidelines of the conference of Defence Ministers of Asia-Pacific region. It was during this meeting that the Defence Minister of China Liang Guanglie invited his American counterpart Robert Gates to visit China. Gates visited China prior to Hu’s visit to Washington and held wide-ranging talks to enhance the Confidence Building Measures (CBMS) on defence matters between the two countries. A lot of groundwork had been made before the summit meeting between the two Presidents. Apart from the visit of Robert Gates to the Beijing, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi paid a visit to USA prior to the visit Hu. The two Presidents have also been meeting on the sidelines of multilateral meetings and no longer are strangers to each other. The rapport between the two, however, may not match chemistry between Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
The high point of the meeting was that it provided an opportunity to the top leaders of the two countries to have a dialogue at a very personal level and also before the world media. It was as much in the interest of the two countries as for the larger interest of the world, particularly at a time when there are talks about China’s rise and China’s assertiveness. It was no wonder, therefore, that to address the growing concerns of China’s military modernisation, Hu reaffirmed that China will remain committed to peaceful development and strive for a peaceful international environment and added, “We do not engage in the arms race or pose a military threat to any country.” He said, “China will never seek hegemony or possess an expansionist policy.” Alluding to China’s enhanced global profile Hu said as the world’s largest developing country and the world’s largest developed country, China and the United States now have a broader basis for cooperation in promoting world economic growth. Maintaining world peace and stability, and advancing sustainable global development Hu’s pronouncement on the face of it may sound reassuring, but words need to match actions. More power should entrust more responsibility.
The economic contents of the outcome of the visit, however, was very significant, like the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India. China will purchase $45 billion of goods in the US, including $19 billion for 200 Boeing airplanes.
The summit meeting had some resonance on South Asia, which in turn has a bearing on India. The statement issued after Chinese President Hu Jintao’s deliberation in Washington addressed major international issues, but was silent on Af-Pak and terrorism. The joint-statement, however, “reaffirmed their commitment to the November 2009 US-China joint-statement”. The earlier joint-declaration mentioned that ‘the two sides welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in the region.’ According to news analysis, ‘while US wanted to step back from such language, this time keeping in mind India’s concern, the assessment is that China would have had Pakistan’s interests in sight’. The joint statement this time avoided any such direct reference. This is a subtle message to New Delhi.
As far as situation in the Korean Peninsula is concerned, President Obama very categorically told President Hu Jintao that if China did not step up its pressure on North Korea, the US would have to redeploy its forces in South Asia to protect itself from a potential North-Korean strike on US soil. Hu, in turn, cautioned US to stay away from Tibet, or else bilateral ties would be greatly affected, a day after President Obama asked President Hu to talk to the representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve the issue. Hu, however, reiterated that Taiwan and Tibet represent the core-interests of his country and touched upon the national sentiment of 1.3 million Chinese. “A review of the history of our relations tells us that China-US relations will enjoy smooth and steady growth when the two countries handle well issues involving each others major interests, otherwise our relations will face a constant trouble, or even tensions,” Hu said this in his address to the US-China Business Council luncheon.
Tibet and Taiwan issues were also raised by US lawmakers when Hu met them at the Capitol Hill. In the meeting with Hu in Washington, members of the Congress zeroed in on human rights and trade to underscore the huge gaps between Beijing and Washington. “Chinese leaders have a responsibility to do better, and the United States has a responsibility to hold them to account,” John Boehner, the new Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a statement after meeting Hu. Rick Larsen, the democratic co-chairman of the bi-partisan US-China working group in the House of Representative, said, “China must get serious about improving US access to its large domestic market, and allow the US to rise. This puts US companies at a disadvantage and unfairly tilts the playing field towards domestic Chinese companies,” he said in a statement. Neither John Boehner, the Republican Speaker, nor Senate majority leader Harry Reed, attended the White House dinner for Hu. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnel, skipped the visit entirely. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a strong protagonist of Tibet and Dalai Lama, attended the State dinner, despite being a strong critic of China on human rights.
At the private dinner Obama asked President Hu to take harder line towards North Korea. President Obama’s warning assumed significance in the light of the fact that Beijing has still not condemned North Korea for allegedly torpedoing a South-Korean warship. It is, however, of significance that China for the first time joined the US in publicly expressing concern over North-Korean Uranium enrichment plant. Michael Wines of the New York Times, who wrote the article entitled ‘Obama takes baby-steps to improve relations’ was surprised when Hu made the remark at the White House Press Conference that China recognises and also respects the universality of Human Rights. Wines described this as a palpable shift for a government that has staged a two-year crackdown on internal dissent.
It is not out of context natural to compare President Hu’s visit to US with that of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to USA in November 2009. Those who had seen the warm reception accorded to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh when he visited the USA felt that the rhetoric witnessed during Manmohan Singh’s visit was missing during Hu’s stayed visit to the USA. As Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbes said on the eve of Hu’s visit, “India enjoys a very personal relationship with the United States, and through the administration of President Clinton, President Bush, and now President Obama, all taking important steps in visiting that country.” At the end of the day the message is oil and water do not gel, so also democracy and communism.
By Rup Narayan Das
[The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) New Delhi.]