Saturday, August 29, 2009

Obama and Sino-US Ties

Here's a story that Dr. Satish Misra has done on Obama and Sino-US ties, where he has taken views from several experts, including me. Does US-China relations affect India-US ties?

Experts say that, notwithstanding the ongoing debate, the global economic crisis has created a situation in which the Sino-US ties are bound to get a constructive push.

Since the election of Barack Obama as the US President in last November, there has been considerable debate on how Sino-US relations would shape up.

While meeting traditional allies in East Asia, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also made Beijing a port of call. Before leaving the Chinese capital, Ms Clinton set the tone for the relationship by stating that she was “encouraged by the possibilities of what a stronger relationship can mean for the Chinese and American people”.

The political battle between the ‘Red Team’—those who advocate stronger ties with People’s Republic of China (PRC)—and the ‘Blue Team’—those who wish to contain the regime in Beijing—continues unabated in the United States. But the global economic downturn seems to have given an edge to the former in the Obama Administration.

Experts say that, notwithstanding the ongoing debate, the global economic crisis has created a situation in which the Sino-US ties are bound to get a constructive push.

Affirming growing Sino-US ties, ORF Senior Fellow and US specialist Dr. Harinder Sekhon says that “there is a strong constituency within the United States that advocates the forging of close ties with China. They recognize that there is a strategic mistrust between the leaders but there is an urgent need to move beyond that and exercise what is now being termed as ‘smart power’ to reduce mutual tensions where leaders in both countries should adopt a broader and more practical approach to finding solutions to many of the global and bilateral issues that confront both the countries”.

“With the global meltdown having hit the US thoroughly,” says ORF Senior Fellow Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Obama’s view is that the US needs Chinese help in getting out of the economic mess. In February 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed to the Chinese government to continue buying US treasury bonds or be prepared for the fall of both economies.”

ORF Vice President Samir Saran, however, avers that “clearly a geo-economic moment (the financial crisis) is being used by certain sections of the American Polity to realign the mood and inclination of their citizenry in favour of engaging with China by overemphasizing on the financial imperatives to overcome issues of ‘freedom, liberty and human rights’ that have held back the bilateral relationship for so long”.

“The argument that Chinese investment in American Treasury has in any ways made
the US vulnerable (in relation to China) or dependent on it (China) is extremely simplistic” argues Mr. Saran, who sees the issue as “being played out in different ways in the US media. It is a classic case of ‘manufacturing consent’ and shaping public opinion for a geo-political objective”.

“On the contrary, the beneficiary of the investment, in this case the US will not only decide the fate (returns on the treasury bonds) but also can leverage this downturn to extract further investments in order to protect the Chinese investment” says Mr. Saran. The emphasis on economic ‘compulsions’ towards China is largely to conceal an underlying geopolitical realignment.

ORF Visiting Fellow Neil Padukone feels that the perception that the US is “kowtowing to China” is amplified by Indian fears. Mr. Padukone sees “Chinese exports and Treasury bonds ownership as just one part of US-China relationships, and US-China economic engagement as just one party of the overall financial recovery process.”

ORF Senior Fellow Nandan Unnikrishnan disagrees with the argument saying that the global meltdown has not pushed the US into Dragon’s lair.


Though Republican President Richard Nixon made the first step towards China, the Democratic Party is perceived to have a “tilt” towards China.

As Dr. Rajagopalan argues, “Democrats have generally tended to have a stronger partnership with China as compared to India. Democrats have sidelined issues such as democracy and human rights in its relationship with China. For instance, post-Tiananmen Square incidents, President George H.W. Bush had imposed sanctions, but by the time Clinton came into office, most of the sanctions were removed. In fact, President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin’s agreement in 1998 to “jointly manage South Asia” had angered India. It was President George W. Bush who managed to break that trend and establish a strategic partnership with India. Obama appears set to continue with Clinton’s pro-China policy.”

Mr. Padukone, however, confessing his “Democratic leanings,” contends that it is “difficult to make these sorts of generalizations. The ‘Red Team’ consists of both Democrats and Republicans that favor enhanced trade relations. Meanwhile, the ‘Blue Team,’ has members of both parties that find such engagement to be anathema for reasons of values (communism and human rights) as well as geopolitics.

“Moreover, different arms of the Executive Branch have different views of PRC, with the State Department pursuing diplomatic engagement, Treasury Department managing economic ties, while the Defense Department has remained wary of China since the late 1980s”, observes Mr. Padukone.

“Perhaps Clinton gave Democrats their reputation as ‘Panda Huggers’ with the disconnect between the 1992 campaign China-bashing in the wake of Tiananmen and Clinton’s enhanced trade with China. But even in the 1990s, the relationship was turbulent, with defense trade restrictions, the Taiwan Straits Crisis, and the Hainan Island incident. The George W. Bush administration, on the other hand, had a more laissez faire approach to relations with China, with some antagonism due to the primacy of Sec. Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense. At the same time, during Bush’s tenure, America’s twin deficits increased and America’s adversaries were dealt with through isolation—which ultimately benefited China, which owned a great deal of US debt and stepped into the political space with countries with which the US would not engage.”

“Most fundamentally, the United States as a whole does not have a coherent long-term China policy. Whether China will be a geopolitical rival or an economic partner remains unclear, with various factions of various parties and bureaucracies arguing various things. Even if China is both rival and partner, the paradox must be reconciled within a coherent strategy,” stresses Mr. Padukone.


Many accuse the US of sidestepping issues of freedom and human rights in order to push closer engagement with China. But Mr. Unnikrishnan partially agrees saying that “Not yet but it will.” If the pro-China sector has an upper hand in the ongoing debate, Mr. Unnikrishnan says the question whether they are winning is not relevant here, “but it appears rational for the Americans to want to reach accommodation with the second largest economy in the world, particularly one on which they have become dependent on.”

The first challenge, according to Dr. Sekhon, would be to cooperate to “advance mutual interests in a lasting economic recovery” by overcoming some of the irritants like trade issues, especially the trade imbalance between the two countries, placing human rights concerns on the backburner.

Mr. Padukone argues that while the Obama Administration may look beyond issues of human rights, “this may be part of a larger shift in diplomatic strategy. By engaging the governments of Iran, Sudan, Russia, China, possibly Myanmar and others, the Obama Administration is changing course in the way it deals with human rights and freedom in larger bilateral relations.

“The Administration’s view seems to be that American aims, both geo-strategic and political, will be served more effectively through proactive engagement than isolationism or confrontation,” points out the Visiting Fellow.

Mr. Padukone puts the whole debate on a wider canvas, saying that “in the wake of the Iraq and Afghan campaigns, diminished political capital globally, global recession that requires a reworking of a financial system that is based on a model of consumption that is largely supplied by China—the US needs to tread relatively carefully. Not to mention, a number of the geopolitical challenges that the United States faces— in Central Asia, the Middle East, Iran, Northeast Asia, and Africa—require multilateral approaches after years of failed unilateral methods. Given the political and economic leverages that China has in many of these areas (that other countries lack), a concerted effort with China may be necessary.


To a question about whether there is a substance in an argument that the US would like China to assume greater global influence and share in policing troubled regions such as Africa and the Indian Ocean, Mr. Unnikrishnan says that “the US will want it” and goes on to say that “they will do to the extent their strategic interests converge.”

Mr. Unnikrishnan dismisses the emergence of a G-2 (China and the US) in the conduct of international affairs as a “nightmare scenario”.

But Dr Sekhon views the question in a positive light saying, “A beginning seems to have been made where both nations have agreed to cooperate in the global fora on these issues.”

“But China’s increasing influence is in many ways inimical to US interests. If America is the “world’s sheriff,” a “deputy” with opposing worldviews and aims on human rights, proliferation, militarization, economics, resource acquisition, and so forth, is counter to US interests”, disagrees Mr. Padukone. “If the “other policeman” in the world were the UK, for example, there might be more credence to the argument.”

Rising Chinese influence in the Middle East and Africa “gives China access to energy resources that the US itself would rather control,” Mr. Padukone argues. “It diminishes any influence the United States would have in those countries: Iran or Burma remain unaffected by American sanctions because they can still trade with China; Sudan needn’t give up its military campaigns in Darfur, Southern Sudan, or Chad because Khartoum receives weapons, investment, and diplomatic support from Beijing.”

Dr. Rajagopalan agrees, arguing “the US will not like to see a more powerful China raising its influence beyond a certain point. On this issue, there could be agreement between the Democrats and the Republicans. Preventing the rise of regional hegemons—peer competitors—remains an objective common to both the Democrats and the Republicans. In fact, the 1992 formulation of the Defense Department remain an underlying principle in the US grand strategy. But China is also clear that its economic engagement with Washington is beneficial and it will continue. China appears to believe that American strategic presence in Asia is still necessary for stability in the region, as well as to prevent the rise of regional hegemons like Japan.”

Any shared policing, points out Mr. Padukone, “has more to do with China’s importance in global governance—in Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Pakistan, Myanmar, the economy, climate change—than with any notions of a ‘bilateral world police’.”


To bring this back to the Indian perspective, Dr. Rajagopalan argues that “India clearly does not want to see very close relations between the two countries as during the Clinton administration, where they wanted to jointly manage south Asia. On the other hand, we do not want to see them get into conflict situations, where India being a neighbor, may be forced to take sides. A serious US-China dispute will have wider security consequences throughout Asia and adversely affect India, too. While the two extremes should be avoided, there are increasing concerns about China and its rise, particularly on the military side.”

As for the prevailing view in India that the Obama Administration is ignoring India in favor of China, Mr. Padukone argues that, “if India isn’t necessary in global politics, then it can be ignored easily. India’s strategic culture remains reactive; it hasn’t made itself indispensable in global governance outside its own borders (and arguably Pakistan).”

“If India becomes pivotal in the resolution of global challenges, then neglecting India (to China’s benefit) will not be an option. But as of now, it is negligible, and there is no reason for American politicians to engage India rather than China.

Mr. Padukone argues that “Indian fears of the US ‘pandering to “the Panda”’ are exaggerated by (a) Indian hypersensitivities to Chinese strength, and more importantly, (b) displacement of blame: India needs to realize that to be treated like an important player, it must be one. India needs to get its own act together before it loses its voice complaining about the US and China.”

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