The recently concluded Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore was more about the United States and China as the lead actors while the rest of the world watched. This was big theatre between a superpower that wants to remain the primary power and another that aspires to break this monopoly. But the real hard bargaining for the prime slot was in the exclusive Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in California where President Barack Obama hosted President Xi Jinping for a two-day summit on June 7-8.
The Annenberg summit was a discreet three days after the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989. Clearly the passage of time and the realities of economic growth and mutual dependency, limitations of military power, limitless technological advances and desire for global control have their own logic. The fact that President Xi had agreed to slacks and shirtsleeves meetings minus the usual pomp and circumstance signifies a new confidence and a willingness in the new Chinese leadership to take on the US on its own turf.
There were the usual positive anticipatory signals from both capitals. Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft spoke of the primary role a US-China relationship could play in US foreign policy while building mutual trust and understanding. The outgoing NSA Tom Donilon wanted deeper military ties. Xi Jinping hoped for a new type of relationship.
This was a dialogue between the two strongest powers at a time when the world appears to be churning rather fiercely, in many different ways. Beneath the bonhomie there must have been serious business in the Big Boys’ Club about dividing the world into spheres of influence and power. The two would have to work hard to move away from the geopolitically adversarial to a competitive relationship at best, and maybe able to lay down some ground rules. Only time will tell what actually transpired after one has sifted through the spin that invariably follows such meetings.
Steady Chinese assertiveness in the Western Pacific and on its periphery was perhaps a signal to the US that a deal on spheres of influence was needed. China watchers like Gordon Chang have described China’s claims in the South China Sea as the biggest attempt to grab territory since World War II. And acceptance of this as China’s ‘core interest’ would mean effectively converting these international waters into territorial waters. The stakes are obviously very high for all those involved.
China has been active in Central Asia for a decade building networks of roads and pipelines to the energy rich powers. It is the biggest buyer of oil from Iraq while retaining a presence and influence in Iran. The Chinese recently hosted the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu and offered to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. China has supported the Syrian government and is quite apparently getting ready to step into Afghanistan after 2014 along with Pakistan.
The Chinese are building a rail road link from Gwadar via Khunjerab to Kashgar in Xinjiang. Their footprint now extends from Latin America to the Arctic, swings across the Pacific to Australia and into Africa with everything else thrown in. It is becoming global. The US may talk of its pivot to Asia to reassure its allies in the Western Pacific but this has much less substance when the US is unable to be present in Syria and plans its withdrawal from Afghanistan, whereas the China’s shadow becomes larger as it is seen pivoting even towards North Atlantic. Asia one might rightly argue, is not just the Western Pacific but also and includes West Asia.
Americans appear surprised and, at times, accusatory that the Chinese are paranoid about US-led alliances or arrangements developing on their periphery. With a huge Honolulu-based Pacific Command facing them backed by air and naval bases, linked by mutual defence treaties with other nations, the Chinese reaction is not surprising. The avowed aim of PACOM of maintaining peace and security in the Asia Pacific region by fighting to win, is not lost on others.
The Chinese are also not impressed by the US change of terminology from ‘pivot’ to Asia in 2009 to ‘rebalance’ in 2012 to minimise the military connotations of the former. There are other Chinese interests, apart from Taiwan and the US military presence in China’s neighbourhood, that transcend territorial and geopolitical issues. Given the intricate trade, financial and economic bilateral relations, the Chinese wish to ensure their financial future. They view with apprehension, the existing financial and trade arrangements through the World Bank and the WTO, which are seen as biased in favour of the West.
The US now sees other threats to itself that emanate from China, apart from the Chinese military and territorial threat to America’s allies. These include cyber attacks and Chinese efforts at developing an anti-satellite programme even as it develops its own mysterious X-37b space plane. However, the latest disclosures about global all-source electronic surveillance by the US under project PRISM could be embarrassing for Obama.
The Xi visit was in the backdrop of continuing tensions with Japan and in the South China Sea. China’s larger message was that it was comfortable about its new position and conveying that it had the will and ability to play aggressively on multiple fronts from across the Himalayas to the Sea of Japan while handling other problems elsewhere. Xi spoke rather enigmatically of a new type of relationship between the two. He was probably alluding to the fact that the US and China have the most important economic relationship but that China was now getting ready for playing a pivotal role in global, political and security matters. Quite apparently China is signalling its rise and preparing for a bigger role but are the US and the world ready for a lesser US role?
Surely Annenberg was not just a stopover after Xi toured what has been America’s backyard in Latin America. Or is there a meaningful Annenberg Declaration that might be Asia’s Yalta? Can Russia be ignored in this calculus?
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing.
The views expressed by the author are personal