BY receiving Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the White House on March 12, United States President Barack Obama has signalled his recognition of Chinas centrality to global affairs. It is relatively rare for a U.S. President to engage in serious discussions with the Foreign Minister of another power instead of its chief executive. And, Yangs visit to Washington was in a large part designed to prepare the ground for Chinese President Hu Jintaos talks with Obama on the sidelines of a summit of the new Group of Twenty (G-20) leaders in London in April. Thereby hangs a diplomatic tale in the making.
Also relevant to this developing story is the narrative that the politically embattled Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso met Obama at the White House on February 23, becoming his first foreign guest. For the new age American leader, it was a strategic decision of staying the course with a long-time ally, Japan. However, Obamas strategic choices in foreign policy, as distinct from a strategic decision or two already taken, are yet to crystallise.
Indisputable in this evolving situation is Americas continuing recognition of East Asia as the fast-emerging prime theatre for not only global politics but also economics, especially during the current crisis. Significantly, Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have already begun to try and co-opt not only Japan but also China as potential partners in the inevitable effort to ride out or roll back the global economic crisis. This aspect, in particular, leaves open Obamas final strategic choices in East Asia, especially in regard to the relative levels of importance he will give to Japan and China over the long term.
In a conventional view, Obama has in a big way humoured Japan by engaging Aso first in face-to-face interactive talks. And, their summit was preceded by Hillary Clintons visit to Japan as the first destination of her foreign travels in her capacity as the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat. Why did Aso, seen by his critics in Japan itself as a leader slipping towards a terminal decline in politics, find favour with Obama? Surely, the reason can be traced to the decades-long culture of close political ties between their countries. And, the politics of personalities has had nothing to do with this reality.
In a transcendental view in diplomacy, Obamas talks with the Chinese Foreign Minister have resulted in a rephrasing of the political mantra in the U.S.-China engagement. The White House said Obama and Yang discussed the overall state of bilateral relationship, emphasising the desire of both sides to strengthen cooperation and build a positive and constructive U.S.-China relationship. There has been a subtle and hardly noticed shift from the recent phraseology of cooperative and constructive ties to a positive and constructive relationship. It is, of course, too early to foresee how this new accent on a positive dimension would translate into political realities.
As for the Obama-Yang meeting itself, there have been two significant precedents involving India and a U.S. President. In the very early phase of the previous President George W. Bushs first term in office, he dropped by during a meeting between his National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Indias External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, and escorted him to the Oval Office for a conversation. That event, which set off a buzz in some diplomatic circles, happened before Bush began courting Pakistan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
More importantly, in April 2005, Bush received the then Indian External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh at the White House. And, that meeting set the stage for discussions which finally resulted in the U.S.-India civil nuclear energy deal. Now, regardless of Obamas prospective posture in relation to this deal, an interesting question is whether his meeting with Yang will in fact lead to any dramatic initiative in U.S.-China ties. The current signals are of a mixed nature, though.
A bilateral military incident, which occurred on the eve of Yangs visit to Washington, became a major talking point. The White House said Obama stressed the importance of raising the level and frequency of the U.S.-China military-to-military dialogue in order to avoid future incidents. Shorn of the contentious details, the incident in question was the perceived harassment of a U.S. Navy ship, Impeccable, by a few Chinese vessels along the international waters of the South China Sea in early March.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry quickly asserted that the story of the U.S. side is totally untrue and unacceptable. Beijing maintained that the U.S. surveillance vessel was operating in Chinas exclusive economic zone without our permission at the time of the incident. Commenting on this after her talks with Yang in Washington on March 11, Hillary emphasised that they agreed that both sides must work hard in the future to avoid such incidents and to avoid this particular incident having consequences that are unforeseen. On the issue of human rights, a frequent topic in the U.S.-China engagement, Obama has, in his conversation with Yang, expressed hope there would be progress in the dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lamas representatives. Significantly in this context, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao minced no words while addressing the international media in Beijing on March 13.
Wen said: Tibet is an inalienable part of Chinas territory; and Tibet-related issues are totally and completely Chinas internal affairs and brook no foreign interference. We always say that the Dalai Lama is not a simple religious figure but is actually a political exile. And, we have full justification for this position. The so-called exile government situated in Dharamshala is a de facto theocratic government; and this illegal government is under the direct leadership of the Dalai Lama.
A key issue that the U.S. wants to co-opt China for is North Koreas denuclearisation and its rollback of a collateral ballistic missile programme. Obama, acknowledging Chinas important role as the Chair of the multilateral talks on Korean denuclearisation, conveyed to Yang that the U.S. was becoming increasingly mindful of the risks posed by North Koreas missile programme.
As this is written, North Korea has notified its intention to launch a satellite for space development for peaceful purposes. The U.S. and its allies such as Japan and South Korea, however, see this move as nothing but a smokescreen for test-firing an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. Asked to comment on this, Wen said on March 13 that the parties concerned must bear in mind the bigger picture and refrain from taking actions that may escalate tensions. He did not make a direct mention of the possible moves, as of mid-March, by the U.S. or Japan to shoot down North Koreas long-range rocket in its test-flight. However, Wens call for restraint was generally viewed as Chinas line on this issue.
Overshadowing these and other issues of politics and long-term strategic interests of the major powers is the current global financial and economic crises. According to the White House, Yang and Obama agreed that China and the U.S. must work closely and urgently, as two of the worlds leading economies, to stabilise the global economy by stimulating demand at home and abroad and [to] get credit markets flowing. And, with China being a developing economy still, Obama wanted the development divide in the world trade talks to be suitably addressed.
On a different but related front, Tokyo is trying to shore up its own relevance to the crisis-hit world by basking in the early sunshine of Obamas Japan-friendly diplomacy. Privy to the nuances of the Obama-Aso summit, Kazuo Kodama, a top Japanese official, told Frontline that the primacy of the Tokyo-Washington alliance deserves this kind of a gesture from the new U.S. leader. The two leaders, he emphasised, reaffirmed the importance of the alliance as the cornerstone of their respective foreign policies.
About the ongoing strategic realignment of political forces on the global stage, Kodama said the two leaders agreed that the credibility of the U.S. dollar as the key [global] currency should be maintained. It was also agreed that the U.S. dollar-based [international] financial system should be maintained. Now, recession-battered Japan is still the worlds second largest economy, behind the ailing U.S.
Several other aspects of Obamas initial engagement with East Asia, as evident from Hillarys visit to this region in February and from this correspondents conversations with diplomats and officials, indicate the possibility of deeper nuances within the now-emerging U.S.-Japan-China trilateral equation.
While in Tokyo in February, Hillary and her Japanese counterpart Hirofumi Nakasone noted the importance of their two countries engaging South Korea, Australia and India, all of which share [certain] universal values. However, neither Hillary nor Nakasone spoke of any need for a blueprint of cooperation among these five countries, on a priority basis, in the present global circumstances. To this extent, this specific idea does not seem to have flown high, although it may acquire resonance at a later date, especially if Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudds idea of an Asia-Pacific Community gets seriously discussed by world leaders.
Hillarys subsequent talks in Jakarta with her Indonesian counterpart Hasan Wirajuda and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono brought into focus two other elements of the evolving Obama foreign policy. First, Obamas U.S. is keen to explore the possibility of engaging Indonesia and assessing its potential as a window for the West, more narrowly for Washington, on the wider Islamic bloc. Secondly, Obamas U.S. is no less eager to have Indonesia as a partner in addressing climate change issues. Significant in this context is the recent remark by a top Indonesian official, Dino Patti Djalal, that his country would like to reap the benefits of its potential status as an environmental superpower.
At the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat in Jakarta, Hillary conveyed the new U.S. administrations resolve to go through a process of acceding to the 10-nation blocs Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Such accession is a prerequisite for membership to the 16-nation East Asia Summit, which now includes China and Japan as also India and Australia. There are other criteria as well, but the accession is the central one.
The visit to Seoul by Hillary, during the same East Asia tour, was aimed at reassuring an old ally like South Korea about continued U.S. support. Such support would have two political coordinates the shared values of democracy and the like, at one level, and security-related reassurances from the U.S. in the specific context of North Koreas nuclear and missile programmes.
Hillarys follow-up talks with her Chinese counterpart Yang and President Hu in Beijing in February itself were significant for an unusual reason. For the first time, the U.S. indicated the possibility of a qualitatively new phase in bilateral ties. This, as hinted at by Hillary through some political hedging on issues such as human rights in China and the Tibet question, translates into a practical proposition as follows. The U.S. may now be willing to shelve the divisive issues, as perceived by either side, and engage China on an equal platform over the main global challenges of a worsening economic recession and climate change.
After his talks with Hillary on that occasion, Yang said that China-U.S. relations would make greater progress in the new era as long as both respect and accommodate each others core interests. Some budding critics of the Obama era tend to see Hillarys acquiescence in the primacy of core interests as a sign of U.S. failure to lead and demand that other countries follow its line on all global and regional issues. What these emerging critics miss, though, is the gradual erosion of U.S. primacy in economic and military spheres.
Several security-political experts such as Robert D. Kaplan have, however, begun to see what Kaplan describes as Americas elegant decline at this stage. According to him, the U.S. has begun to hit the trajectory of such a decline by leveraging the growing sea power of allies such as India and Japan to balance against China. It is not clear at this stage whether the Obama administration would follow its predecessor in looking at India as a budding ally. Also unclear now is the likely response of India to such a perception, especially after a new government assumes office in New Delhi in a few months time. And, from the U.S. standpoint, there are political uncertainties in Japan, too.
In this perspective, the possibility of a U.S.-Japan-China trilateral equation within the new G-20 forum, or even outside it, can have three leadership dimensions. A relevant and significant nuance was suggested by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen while answering a question from this correspondent in Singapore recently: I dont think there are any chauffeurs to the world economy. Noting that China and India have managed to avoid the worst of the recession so far, Amartya Sen emphasised he wouldnt say that they will be driving the world economy.
Within these parameters of realism, Washington may have to be the leader, under the framework of a potential U.S.-Japan-China trilateral equation, to address the current global economic crisis. And, Japan will probably take the key initiatives within any such trilateral core group to address climate change challenges. China, of course, is seen as the proactive player for engineering a realistic end to North Koreas nuclear arms and missile programmes.
A bigger issue beyond any such potential trilateral equation is the one relating to power-sharing in a possible multipolar world of the