Washington: The recent US-China summit was a success – for Chinese President Xi Jinping. He conceded little and ably cast the meeting on his terms.
President Barack Obama was a polite host, saying nothing to disturb the flow of his better-prepared counterpart. Xi declared the informal summit in California had created a “new model of great power relationship,” “an anchor for world stability and the propeller of world peace.” Xinhua went further and called it a “lighthouse” which will guide others.
Obama seemed like he was being browbeaten into praising “this new model of relations” and China’s “peaceful rise.” His attempt at a casual, shirtsleeves meeting to develop a personal rapport with Xi has once again proved that for Chinese leaders these niceties ultimately don’t matter. They are only useful as a tactic.
Does the “new model” mean that Obama recognizes China’s primacy in Asia where China recently intruded 19 kilometers inside Indian territory, conducted naval exercises just 80 km from Malaysia and at the southernmost edge of its expanding maritime claims in the South China Sea and is engaged in an increasingly loud confrontation with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands? China has de facto occupied Scarborough Shoals claimed by the Philippines by chasing away Philippine fishermen and surrounding the rocks and reefs like a “cabbage” with warships.
Washington has kept largely quiet as the Philippines, a treaty ally, struggles with limited naval capabilities against Beijing’s slow but sure encroachments. With every aggressive outreach, China is testing the limits and creating facts on the water in the South China Sea. American silence seems to indirectly acknowledge its interests. And China’s claims and core interests only seem to be expanding.
At the recent meeting Obama said nothing about China’s multiple military moves in Asia as Xi wrapped the summit in flowery language and delivered it as a success back home.
If India, Japan and other countries were tuned in to last week’s meeting to decipher the future of what was first dubbed as the US “pivot” to Asia and later mellowed down to “strategic rebalancing,” they would find the new accommodation between US and China unsettling.
America’s Asian partners are already nervous about Chinese territorial claims, which are increasingly backed by military might. The understanding the United States reached with Asia’s most powerful nation is thus extremely pertinent.
The (re)emerging US-China equation has a direct bearing on India’s interests – it can either enhance or compromise them. India has made some clear moves recently, which are broadly in tune with the ideas of the original US pivot. Obama’s briefing book should have had a page on last month’s India-Japan summit.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s effusive embrace of his counterpart, Shinzo Abe, was significant and a message to China. Singh emphasized the commonalities – democracy, shared values and public goodwill – all ingredients that are missing in the India-China equation. The warmth was palpable, especially compared to Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit to India in the aftermath of his army’s incursion into Indian territory. It was only when India hinted at cancelling Li’s visit did Beijing roll its soldiers back.
Singh’s “pivot” to Japan shows smart thinking, even worthy risk-taking. It overrides the “don’t-provoke-China” camp in New Delhi whose “nuanced” diplomacy has got India few returns. Singh finally sided with the others who say China respects those who show resolve.
But Obama could not bring himself to call Xi out publicly on China’s muscle flexing or even on cyber security and espionage – the issue whipped up by US officials in pre-summit briefings as THE area of concern. But then he has his own “don’t-provoke-China” advisors.
Obama began in 2009 with an accommodation of China with the idea of G-2 only to be rebuffed by Chinese assertiveness on the high seas and a total lack of reciprocity. In 2010 he shifted to a policy of hedging by strengthening Asian alliances and called it a pivot. Last year, the pivot became a “rebalance” in the face of fierce Chinese complaints that the US was trying to “contain” China. But the rebalance continued to be fleshed out despite Beijing’s objections.
With the latest meeting, there now seems to be another US recalculation. Washington once again is trying to reassure Beijing with accommodation. John Kerry has talked of a “Pacific Dream” focused mainly only on economic growth minus any reference to the strategic element. The new coinage is a cute-ish play on Xi’s “Chinese Dream” concept but it is unlikely to mesmerize the rest of Asia.
The rethinking of the pivot/rebalance was most evident during Kerry’s confirmation hearings when the new secretary of state ruled out any increase of US military presence in Asia-Pacific. “I am not convinced that the United States needs to increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific,” he said flatly.
Then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a review of US defense strategy in March to see if the US could afford the rebalance and shifting of military assets. But the same month his deputy, Ashton Carter, declared in Jakarta “the rebalance is not in jeopardy” in an elaborate speech listing all its military components.
The signals are conflicting and confidence sapping. In addition, America’s fiscal problems, sequestration and furloughs are bound to raise serious questions about its ability to deliver on policy promises.