Hu's chance to dance

2010-11-18Asia Times

BEIJING - China is important in American diplomacy, so important that even just looking at the map of his route, United States President Barack Obama seems to have drawn a circle around the key element in of his trip to Asia - China.

In his 10 days on the continent, Obama was in India and Indonesia, then moved on to South Korea and Japan, making a crescent moon that almost touched Beijing, the capital that this time last year seemed destined to co-star in a Group of 2 with Washington.

Certainly, the rules of delicate international diplomacy required that Obama could not go to Beijing during these 12 months while President Hu Jintao of China had not returned the US president's visit. Also there are issues of political expediency, which required these steps. America cannot put all of its focus on China, at the risk of alienating other countries fearful of being crushed by the Sino-American alliance.

In addition, there were problems with dates and opportunities. Just as Obama was in Asia, Hu flew to Europe for a visit to France and Portugal, and British Prime Minister David Cameron was due in Beijing. But these are only formalities. The real problem is that diplomats from both countries have struggled to arrange a trip to America for Hu. The trip has been delayed and will only take place in January.

The difficulties in agreeing on dates have come to stand for other problems. The US has been exerting pressure for the revaluation of the Chinese yuan, but those demands smashed against a wall of opposition in Beijing. Nor has China reduced its trade surplus with the US, a source of political controversy in Washington.

At the same time, there is a long history of friction on many areas of policy and strategy. On climate change as well as on the sinking of a South Korean corvette in March by Pyongyang, Beijing and Washington were not in line.

To all this add the old disagreements over human rights, with the condemnation of China's record, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to dissident Liu Xiaobo, and then the fight over Google in China.

These disagreements formed the background to the poisonous controversy that started this summer around the maritime borders of China, boundaries around which America began to press from several directions.

The US made important overtures to India, the demographic and possibly even economic balance to China in the future. Washington agreed in principle with the Indian defense doctrine, which permits a limited but very strong counter-attack against Pakistan in the event of a terrorist attack in India backed by Islamabad. An endorsement from the US and the silence of Pakistan - although with some grumbling - indicate strong political and economic support and therefore also the rise of New Delhi.

This rise has been underlined by Washington's expression of support for a permanent seat for India in the United Nations Security Council. Japan has already cried out against this proposal, given its years of diplomatic ambitions to the UN. But the gesture was not against Japan - it is objectively to counteract China's ambitions in Asia.

China is not sitting by passively. In recent days, Hu gained French President Nicholas Sarkozy's support for a conference next year on a new world economic order. This could eventually lead to a new Bretton Woods.

We are far from a deal for the Chinese yuan to be a world currency, but certainly this is more than just a pinprick against the continued hegemony of the dollar as an international currency.
In this situation, however, it is difficult to think of a collision between the US and China, since they are interrelated by a dense network of receivables and payables, investments and partnerships. Obama and Hu are preparing additional items for the agenda of the next summit in Washington.

The principal ideologue of the country, Zheng Bijian, is organizing a conference on clean energy to coincide with Hu's visit in Washington, and Hu will open the works. Clean energy technology can be very sensitive because many items have dual applications, civilian and military. If that really triggered military cooperation between the two countries, Obama's trip to Asia could then be seen in a different light. He would have not tried to contain China but to balance Beijing and all its neighbors, who in turn all play the Chinese and American card according to opportunities.

In this sense, Obama's trip would mark the emergence for the first time of a new balance of power in East Asia. Here the pattern for centuries has been one of regional domination in two areas, one dominated by China and the other by India, there was no balance of power of the kind Europe saw at least since the 15th century. The two areas were separated by the Himalayan Mountains and Southeast Asia was a border region for both. Now those old limits have fallen and the two areas play together with huge different land masses and populations.

A balance of power could actually be the net result of this convergence, but it is a game no great power in the region has ever played, and thus it could be difficult and delicate. But it is very hard to think that in future one country, even a much richer China, could be the absolute leader in the region over ambitious countries like India, Japan and even Vietnam, South Korea and Indonesia. Here, if America wants to be the teacher and lead the new dance, it has to think long and hard on how to play this new game. (2010-11-18 Asia Times)


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