This could be the week that changes Asia. It depends on what scenario plays out. Future historians could end up labelling this seven-day period a turning point. It could also end up being just another burst of winter diplomacy, forgotten by all but a handful of diplomats.
The Big Rosy Picture is the scenario New Delhi would want the most. The US Senate gives the nuclear bill a big aye, the joint congressional committee reworks it to India’s liking and the whole US Congress votes it into existence. Simultaneously, China’s leader surprises one and all by scaling back on his stubborn demand for Tawang and the brakes are lifted on the border talks. It would be likely that Hu would then fly off to Pakistan and give them their “nuclear deal.” But no one would be fooled: it would be clearly just a thin compensatory gift.
The Acceptable Version is the scenario where India at least gets the big prize: a US congressional green light for the nuclear agreement. If recent Chinese statements are anything to go by, Beijing is in no mood to compromise and no hurry to find common ground with India over the border. Hu’s focus seems to be on economic issues like overcoming the security hurdles to Chinese investment into India and getting New Delhi to grant it status as a ‘market economy’. With the US nuclear deal in the bag, any Sino-Pakistan atomic agreement would be wholly overshadowed.
The scenario of the Stars Are Against Us would be evident if the sands run out on the nuclear bills in the US Congress and the entire legislative battle begins again next year. Given that the 2008 US presidential election campaign will have taken off by March, the window for passing the legislation will be extravagantly tiny. It would be salt in India’s geopolitical wounds if Hu’s visit here produced diddley-squat and he then went off to grant Pakistan a nuclear package, however symbolic.
What is making the good scenarios tentative is the hobgoblin of domestic politics. Democrats in the US, scenting blood in a wounded Bush administration, just might be ready to have at least one bruising battle with the Texan, after the party’s success in the recent elections.
Says Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the real danger lies in the budget bills in the lame-duck session. That’s where partisan warfare could break out. With the legislative schedule so tight, almost any delay could blow a hole in the nuclear legislation’s chances.
Hu’s tough stance on Tawang is also strongly driven by politics at home. His need to show vertebrae to the Chinese military. Argues China watcher Willy Wo-Lap Lam of the Jamestown Foundation, Hu “is hoping to impress officers with his no-nonsense style.” Lam argues that the bulk of Hu’s support base within the party are officials who served with him in the years he spent in the western provinces of Tibet, Gansu and Guizhou.
Tibet is one area where Hu needs to show his mettle, especially at a time when he is still consolidating his position in the run up to the 17th Communist Party Congress.
This is unfortunate: the Democratic Party leadership is as much in favour of the deal as its Republican counterpart, despite last-minute lobbying by the nuclear nonproliferationists and Pakistan officials going around Washington telling all and sundry: “The deal is dead.”
Similarly, even Taiwanese watchers of mainland politics believe Hu is “fundamentally liberal”. But succession politics in Beijing means he must tack hard to the right before he can unfurl the sail of reform.
It all folds into a bigger picture. Senior Indian officials have been musing on how the fissures of Asian geopolitics seem to be running through New Delhi in the week-long period.
The Manmohan Singh government, which is about to spend the next two years trying to get a breakthrough with Pakistan, could do with a heavyweight foreign policy success. Politically, it would be less than pleasant if the Bush administration fails to deliver on the nuclear deal on virtually the same day as Hu announces a Chinese nuclear deal for Pakistan. “Hopefully, the Democrats understand how this would look symbolically,” says one Indian official.
On the other hand, much of the political capital the government has expended in pushing through the deal would be replenished if the US Congress is able to avoid gridlock. For one thing, the contrast between a US that delivers a three-decade-old Indian strategic demand and a China that asks for territory from India and gives reactors to Pakistan would reveal just how little national interest permeates the foreign policy-thinking of the Indian communist parties.
In theory, these are not the times that launch a thousand ships. Geopolitical shifts are rarely decided in a day, even seven days in a row. There are no overriding sources of friction between the great powers, definitely nothing that poses an existential threat. Which is why, these days, most governments tend to err on the side of caution and so much foreign policy is local.
Even China, said Jin Linbo of the China Institute of International Studies in an article recently, is “trying to be much more neutral and balanced between Pakistan and India.” The exception to the rule is George W. Bush, which is why the nuclear deal is happening at all.
Many experts say it still remains possible that the US Congress will fall just short of putting the nuclear Humpty Dumpty together in time and Hu, noting this, will put off giving Pakistan a nuclear anything. Says Sumit Ganguly, professor at Illinois University, “If the Senate does falter, I doubt that Hu will go ahead with any Pakistani deal. He will come up with some suitably convoluted formulation to defer the deal.” Hu had rebuffed earlier nuclear overtures by Pervez Musharraf in February this year. Schaffer adds that any Sino-Pakistan nuclear deal would make passage for an Indo-US deal next year “very likely”.
It remains nice to think kingdoms can be lost for want of a nail. It’s likely that two nuclear deals between four of the biggest players in the Asian power system in one week would have many world capitals burning the midnight candle.