Ringing statement

Published : Dec 07, 2007 00:00 IST

Keeping in focus their long-term interests, the United States and China set up a hotline between them.

in SingaporeU.S. Defence

The decision by China and the United States to set up a defence-related telephone hotline so as to ward off a possible cold war between them reflects their political maturity to rise above significant differences.

In a striking contrast, the U.S. is puzzled that Japan, its greatest ally in the Asia-Pacific region, has suspended its refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean area in aid of the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition forces in Afghanistan. And it is yet to figure out how to retain its military presence on the Korean peninsula after a peace regime has been established there in accordance with the moves initiated by the two Koreas. The Republic of Korea (RoK), as South Korea is known, has been its military ally for over 50 years since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Elsewhere too in Greater East Asia an emerging geopolitical zone that not only covers Australia but also includes India as a member of the forum of East Asia Summit (EAS) the U.S. finds the going tough in winning new friends and influencing leaders. As this is written, Australia has not given up its military role in aid of the U.S. forces in Iraq. In the throes of a hotly contested round of general elections slated for November 24, Canberra may, however, do so, especially if the Opposition Australian Labour Party wins. For some time now, India has been the object of a new passion in some influential U.S. quarters.

By the time U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates completed his visit to China, as also South Korea and Japan, by November 9, the Bush administration was waiting with bated breath to know whether India would operationalise or dump its latest civil nuclear energy accord.

In early November, the U.S., therefore, suddenly discovered how easy it was to engage a potential rival, China, rather than long-time allies such as Japan and South Korea and a potential long-term friend, India. The reasons for such a situation are obviously complex. Most conspicuous is the fact that China has demonstrated far-sighted statesmanship in agreeing to engage the Pentagon through a hotline despite the recent actions of U.S. President George W. Bush in regard to the Dalai Lama. Ignoring Chinas deep sensitivities, Bush had received the Dalai Lama at his private residence in the White House and publicly greeted him on the Capitol, where he was honoured.

Official Japans predicament in having had to suspend the pro-U.S. refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean area has come to be compared, in the Asia-Pacific diplomatic circles, with Official Indias dilemma over the done nuclear deal with Washington. India and Japan, besides China, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, will join the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to hold the third EAS meeting in Singapore on November 21. This provided diplomatic circles a new opportunity, by early November, to look at the changing dynamics of the American presence in Greater East Asia, in the context of the continued exclusion of Washington from the EAS forum.

In the traditional geopolitical space of East Asia, the U.S. continues to evoke mixed feelings. But the general regional consensus is that the U.S. is not a force to trifle with despite its shrinking profile on the global stage as a wounded superpower. It is in this sense that Chinas decision to stay the course and establish a defence-related hotline with the U.S. acquires favourable overtones when seen against Indias domestic difficulties in operationalising the civilian nuclear deal.

Gates and Chinese Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan announced, after their talks in Beijing on November 5, that the defence-related hotline, which was earlier agreed to in principle, would now be established. The two sides would also seek to deepen their ties in the sensitive domain of military-to-military exchanges.

Outwardly, the U.S. has managed to keep China engaged after openly provoking it on the issue of the Dalai Lamas status and agenda. Chinas East Asian critics emphasise that it cannot afford to antagonise the U.S. in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In this scenario, the U.S. is expected to ratchet up the pressure on Beijing by resorting to smart games in regard to its firm positions on issues such as Taiwans status as part of China and the Dalai Lamas suspected separatist agenda with regard to Tibet. Beijing, according to its regional critics, may also come under heavier U.S. pressure on human rights issues ahead of the Olympics.

However, Chinas actions reflect its own recourse to a counter-strategy in staying engaged with the U.S. It is easy to see Chinas undoubted interest in preventing a U.S.-led Western boycott of the Olympics on some political, non-sporting pretext or the other. At a more fundamental level, China often tends to stay focussed on the big picture of long-term statecraft in dealing with major powers such as the U.S. Chinas decision on the hotline issue forms an integral part of the matrix of this big picture.

In the defence domain, China has caught the U.S. off guard in a critical sense. Early this year, Beijing successfully carried out an anti-satellite test (AST). When the U.S. began raising a ruckus, China clarified that the AST had no military application whatsoever. The AST involved the accurate firing of a ballistic missile from a terrestrial location to shoot down an earth-orbiting object Chinas own ageing weather satellite in this case.

Even as China reaffirmed its adherence to the principle of putting outer space only to peaceful uses and treating it as a non-military domain of the entire human race, the U.S. and its allies remained sceptical about such pledges. The AST put China in the same league as the U.S. and Russia with such defence-applicable capabilities in regard to outer space. At least one top U.S. military commander likened Chinas AST to the former Soviet Unions successful launch of the Sputnik in the 1950s, which heralded the space race.

It is no longer a new theory in international affairs that successful space-faring nations will be able to dominate global politics in the future in almost the same way that maritime powers did in the past.

At a primary

In this discourse on the extraterrestrial orientation of global politics of the future, China suddenly zoomed across the U.S. radar with a trailblazing AST effect, in a virtual reality setting, of course. For the U.S., irresistible from then on was the idea of a defence-related hotline with China to prevent a military miscalculation based on suspicions. Mutual trust underpins the effectiveness of a hotline, but it is still a useful device to assess each others intentions in a bilateral setting if that is marked by pragmatism, a catch-phrase in Chinese diplomacy today.

With the AST having redefined U.S. perceptions of Chinas military prowess, the Pentagon chief indicated, during the annual Asia Security Conference, or the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore in June, that a hotline was being planned to keep the two countries engaged during potential crises in the future.

If the U.S. now appears to have humoured China with a hotline after some provocative action in regard to the Dalai Lama or if Beijing now seems to have accommodated Washington despite its provocation, the reasons have to do with realpolitik calculations. China knows that its AST has raised the stakes for any provocative action by the U.S., beyond its old tolerance limits.

As much coincidentally or, perhaps, otherwise, China was now able to welcome Gates when it further proved its scientific prowess in the outer-space domain. On the very day Gates held talks with General Cao in Beijing, Chinas lunar craft successfully entered the moons orbit. Not surprisingly, Gates told Chinese President Hu Jintao on the following day how concerned the U.S. remained about the possible military implications of Chinas solitary AST.

So, if Chinas confidence in engaging an increasingly provocative U.S. was enhanced by its own assessment of its new space-faring capabilities, Gates remained no less reassured that the time had not yet run out to test Chinas patience, ahead of the 2008 Olympics, over matters such as the Dalai Lama and Taiwan or human rights. The bottomline in the U.S.-China engagement is reflected in their abilities to stay focussed, despite distractions or provocations, on the big picture the perceived national interest and pragmatic statesmanship or realpolitik.

Behind the scenes in Greater East Asia, a self-confident China is seen to be engaged in a formidable and new exercise in anti-imperialism: to try and bend the imperialist to do your bidding. Beijing has more than one ace up its sleeve in dealing with the U.S. now the AST and the U.S. dependence on Chinese diplomatic skills to bring about the denuclearisation of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea. The U.S. is, of course, not without its own devices to deal with the implications of the Chinese AST or any possible Chinese intransigence in regard to the North Korean nuclear-arms question. However, both the U.S. and China engage each other with a great dose of pragmatism and by keeping in focus their long-term interests.

The latest visits to South Korea and Japan by the Pentagon chief were not matched by the kind of political stakes that featured in his talks with top Chinese leaders in Beijing. In South Korea, now buoyed over its recent diplomatic entente with North Korea during the second inter-Korean summit, Gates and his hosts broke no new ground over the interrelated issues of nuclear disarmament across the peninsula and an eventual reunification of the ethnically homogenous countries.

It was essentially a stock-taking exercise by the Pentagon chief in Seoul, and the big future question of a possible U.S. military withdrawal from the Korean peninsula was not addressed. However, the two Koreas have set the ball rolling by talking of their desire to set up a new peace regime on the peninsula. Relevant to this long-term goal are the views of Korean strategic affairs experts such as Kim Sung-han about the possibility of a Libya-plus model of an eventual improvement in the U.S.-North Korea relations following Pyongyangs adherence to its perceived promises of abandoning its nuclear-arms and related programmes.

However, North Koreas long-time demand that the U.S. show good faith by abandoning its extended nuclear deterrence in respect of not only South Korea but also Japan has not at all been addressed. This deterrence is cited by Pyongyang to defend its own nuclear-weapons programmes.

In order to revoke its own suspension of the refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean area, the Japanese government is engaged in a delicate political exercise at home to win over the anti-U.S. hawks in the Diet (Parliament) and outside. The scope of this exercise falls outside the diplomatic niceties of the U.S.-Japan engagement. However, this engagement is now reinforced by a bilateral sense of urgency to put in place a ballistic missile defence system (BMD).

It is not yet clear whether the BMD could be widened to try and intercept an anti-satellite missile during its initial trajectory across the earths atmosphere. However, Chinas AST has forced the U.S. and others to think of a new ball game to stay ahead in outer space or even just stay afloat on the terrestrial domain all in long-term strategic visions.

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