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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 52, December 12, 2009

Obama’s Visit to China

Saturday 12 December 2009, by Gunjan Singh

President Barack Obama became the first American President to pay a state visit to China while in his first year in office. China was the third stop during the latest trip of the President to four Asian states. He visited Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. He started the tour by visiting Japan, the closest American ally in the region. But what turned out to be most significant was the President’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart. Considering that China is the rising power and the United States is the only super- power right now, one cannot overlook the fact that the existing dynamics is changing quite rapidly.

This meeting showed that the global power structure is changing. In the past few years it has become obvious that China is the global economic hub and is growing and the United States needs its support in order to survive. The ongoing financial crisis coupled with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq has greatly transformed the international relations structure. The most obvious explanation for this is the rapid economic growth of China which is measured at 8.9 per cent for the past quarter in comparison to 3.5 per cent of the United States. This certainly provides Beijing with a strong say in economic matters.

The most interesting outcome of the visit was the Joint Statement issued by the two parties. It was the most comprehensive one in the last 30 years of formal relations between the two sides. The Statement incorporated words of cooperation in relation to the armies of both the sides which have been quite mistrustful of each other. It also covered topics like human rights, dialogue on space exploration and Afghanistan and Pakistan and also larger global issues like climate change, economic recovery and working towards ending the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes.

Though both sides issued a Joint Statement, the differences among them were quite apparent on certain issues. In the past few decades it has become quite apparent that the United States needs to be in alliance with China as Beijing has one of the largest foreign exchange reserves and because it is becoming a key player in the international system. The points of difference were obvious in the following areas. While Obama asserted that if North Korea and Iran failed to pay heed to negotiations they would face the ‘consequences’, China only asserted the need for continued talks. One has to remember here that Beijing is not interested in an unstable North Korea as that would harm China. And the growing Chinese energy requirements have made it invest in Iran and Beijing would not like any problems on that front as well.

Another point where there was obvious non- agreement was President Hu’s statement that both the sides should respect each other’s ‘core interests’. It is quite obvious as to what he meant by that statement. China has been quite upset in the past with the continued arms sales by the United States to Taiwan. China has also showed its displeasure with the continued support of the United States for the Dalai Lama. Obama, however, managed to highlight that China needs to engage in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile the Xinhua News Agency quoted President Hu as saying that Washington should also ban advocates for the Muslim ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Another area of discontent was economics. Hu Jintao stressed for a dialogue on macroeconomic and financial policies. He also asserted the urgency to guard against protectio-nism while President Obama spoke about plans regarding the re-evaluation of the Chinese currency. But the interesting point is that Beijing has categorically mentioned having no immediate plans to revise the currency exchange rate. There were also indications for the creation of a Joint Clean Energy Research Centre on the Climate Change front. But there was no mention of putting limits on carbon emissions.

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Beijing should be quite exhilarated by the way this meeting was concluded. The most obvious was the fact that President Obama refrained from any emphasis on the human rights issues. Secondly, though he said that China should engage the Dalai Lama in a dialogue, he asserted that the United States viewed Tibet as an integral part of the Chinese territory. He also did not press the Chinese side for any commitment on the Iranian as well as the North Korean issues.

The most notable aspect of this visit for India is President Obama’s acknowledgment of Beijing’s role in South Asia. This declaration has made China almost a de-facto leader of the South Asian region. This declaration is in contrast to what the Indo-US nuclear deal was supposed to do. India is already quite wary of the ‘all-weather friendship’ which Beijing and Islamabad share. In addition to this, if China gets a free hand to dictate terms in the South Asian region, it will clearly hurt Indian influence in this area. It has also been noted that China has been trying to develop close friendship with other neighbours of India, namely, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. New Delhi has been keeping an eye on this front as well. More freedom to China to enter South Asia will only lead to more strains on the already delicate Beijing-New Delhi relations and this will definitely test Indian diplomacy.

Beijing shares a warm relationship with almost all of India’s neighbours and it has always been quite keen to engage itself in matters of the South Asian region. With an acceptance from Washington, Beijing will try and push itself further. India till date has managed to keep a strong Chinese influence at bay. But the recent developments call for a more proactive approach from the Indian side. There is a need to make the SAARC in South Asia a workable, coherent group. India will have to take the lead and try to engage the region on bilateral as well as multilateral levels with New Delhi as the leader. This also calls for an urgent revisit of the SAARC and how it could be modified to turn it into a purposeful entity. Furthermore, India needs to project its soft power.

The author is a Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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