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Monday, November 16, 2009

Obama's Chinese odyssey

Times of India(blog)
Saturday Nov 16, 2009

Tarun Vijay

The night before President Obama's first Asian tour began, he was trying to comfort an America deeply in shock after Maj Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 American soldiers who were bound for Afghanistan. Yet, Obama's nine-day tour, which took him to Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul, was marked more by economics than a consolidation of the Asian powers against terrorism. That's how he is trying to assure Americans — bringing back buoyancy to the US markets, reducing unemployment and making Asians buy more American goods rather overfilling American bazaars with Asian goods.

Hence, more than any other country China became the most significant stopover, and longest too — three nights and three days beginning Sunday evening, November 15. To make the Chinese receptive he refused a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Washington, and remained noncommittal whether he would raise issues of Tibet and human rights violations with his Chinese counterpart. Though an overcautious China provided all the reasons to Obama for a Tibet remark when its foreign ministry spokesperson raised the issue via Abraham Lincoln , referring to Obama — he is black, he admires Abraham Lincoln, so he, of all people, should sympathize with Beijing's effort to prevent Tibet from seceding and sliding back into what it was before its liberation by Chinese troops: a feudalistic, slaveholding society headed by the Dalai Lama.

But Obama may not necessarily oblige Dalai supporters as he wants to project a different image of America — a suave , conciliatory nation that can be talked to. His message to China from Tokyo was warm and friendly, wanting to build strong ties and not taking the rise of China as a threat. And he introduced himself as a pacific president with such personal history that the audience in the Suntory hall of Tokyo gave him a standing ovation. He said: “I am an American president who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a boy. My sister Maya was born in Jakarta and later married a Chinese-Canadian. My mother spent nearly a decade working in the villages of Southeast Asia, helping women buy a sewing machine or an education that might give them a foothold in the world economy.” “So,” he added, “the Pacific rim has helped shape my view of the world.”

America needs a supportive Chinese market and wants China to move towards a market-based value for its currency. So Obama's meeting with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao would concentrate more on economic issues and yes, AfPak policy, which affects the regional power balance but won't touch any controversial issues. As New York Times put it, he is clearly seeking to avoid alienating Beijing on the eve of his inaugural visit to China.

That's a big morale booster to China specially it is engaged in a wordy duel with India on border issues that reached a ‘cold war' level during the Dalai lama's Arunachal visit. Hence a natural corollary to Obama's China visit would be how it will affect India-China ties. Observers say the recent Chinese ‘war of words' with India and Chinese government-run media's xenophobic reactions and commentaries against Indian positions — reminding us not to forget 1962, can also be attributed to the growing India-US closeness symbolized in the Bush era's nuke deal. That has made China feel threatened by an India-US alignment. Hence the pressure on India has been building up. Another factor is the increasing US influence in Asia, which China has never liked. China thinks that India, which had kept a genuine non-aligned relationship with Washington has now completely gone into the US camp after the nuke deal. Indira Gandhi's regime and Vajpayee's strong nationalist stand post-Pokaran 2 showed India independent.

No more now, is the Chinese perception. This has put India under a bigger strategic burden and complexity. We are not sure if the US will help us during a skirmish with our northern neighbour, as US-China ties would be more important to Washington than help to Delhi. Obama's Asian tour doesn't seem to have taken India as an Asian power, and Obama would meet Indian Prime Minister and the President at Washington, and not in Delhi. Just before Obama left for China, the US administration refused to allow Indian intelligence officers to interrogate American national David Coleman Headley, arrested by the FBI on charges of plotting a major terror attack in India at the behest of Pakistan-based LeT, though India had given the FBI permission to interrogate Kasab in Mumbai. The US will also put pressure on Indian leaders to sign the CTBT and accept the US position on carbon emissions. It has also not changed its ‘black list' that bans trade in sensitive technology for some Indian companies, including a dozen key government entities like the Indian Space Research Organization. Though the US continues such trade with countries like North Korea, Pakistan and China that have a record of proliferation.

So a warmer confidence-building between the US and China may not necessarily mean an easing of the pressures on India. We will have to fight our battle on our shoulders alone.

That apart, a better US-China relationship would certainly be a development having its soothing effect on the region, as South Asia has increasingly seen geopolitical tensions rising on account of a bitter US-China rivalry and their efforts to curb each other's influence. Pakistan, which receives charitable grants and military help from, amazingly, both the rival countries, is in a state of a multi-control towers with non-state players as much powerful as the state authority dependent on US doles. A closer US-China relationship is not seen changing the status quo. China is a hard bargainer and long back it began building up its case against what it terms ‘unfair' policies of the US. Its state-controlled newspapers published public opinion polls showing public anger against Washington on economic matters. One of them said: “The unprecedented and increased trade protectionism measures the US has launched against China recently have triggered a strong fury of protest among the Chinese public. A recent survey conducted by shows that more than 90 percent of web users believe the US is seriously ruining the principle of freedom of international trade.”

Ultimately it's the Chinese strength and military power coupled with its strong economy that has seen world leaders recognize its might and seek its cooperation rather than get into conflict with it. Obama's visit also underlines the same truth of diplomacy. As one American analyst succinctly tried to put the matrix of the US China relations, ‘the most important division will be between centers of order and centers or sources of disorder, it is vital to American interests that China remain a center of order. America needs to handle a rising China the way Britain handled a rising America, not a rising Germany.'

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