By Bhaskar Roy
As Chinese President Hu Jintao lands in the USA on January 19 he would have at the back of his mind the leadership transition that would take place in his country in late 2012. It can be said that the elevation of Xi Jinping to replace him as the CCP General Secretary and the President of China has been written in stone. So is the case of Li Keqing as Premier in 2013 to replace Wen Jiabao. But what indication would Hu give to his American interlocutors about the timing of Xi Jinping’s elevation to the Chairmanship of the increasingly powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), a post that he currently holds.
In the last minute preparations for Hu Jintao’s visit, the two sides signalled two very different directions on interests. The Chinese sent Foreign Minister Yang Jiaqi (Jan 3-7), and the US sent Defence Secretary Robert Gates to the respective countries. Economic, trade, and currency (under valuations of the Yuan) issues were discussed earlier between the two sides.
Yang Jiaqi’s portfolio is overall bilateral relations including issues the two countries are closely engaged with currently. Specifically these are the situation related to the Korean peninsula, Taiwan issue and the South China Sea disputes.
Robert Gates’ visit was to further pry open China’s military sector, that is, military development and doctrine. Not only the US, but China’s neighbours from Japan to South East Asia are getting increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of transparency in Beijing’s military doctrine. China’s military development has been very rapid and extensive casting a military cloud over the entire region. Its proclaimed stand is that its defence development is only for national security and not aimed at any other country. Yet Defence Minister Liang Guanglie added they are also in preparation for small regional conflicts. That is shocking news for the small countries especially around the South China Sea which have territorial disputes with China. The sum total of defence assets of all these countries is minuscule compared to that of China.
Two other incidents last year prompted questions over China’s intentions in the region. One was the stand off between China and Japan over an accident between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese patrol boats in the Japanese controlled Senkaku Island / Diaoyu Island waters. Although the situation has been controlled, provocations by Chinese ships and submarine in and around Japanese waters continue.
North Korean provocations against South Korea went from small skirmishes and propaganda to physical attacks, last year. A South Korean frigate was sunk by a North Korean torpedo in which 48 South Korean sailors were killed. The next incident in which the North shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeon island killing another six last November, almost sparked a war.
The Chinese leadership’s protection of and support to the North Korean regime raises questions, especially since there is a growing sentiment in China that friendship with Pyongyang was more of a problem than an asset.
The Chinese leadership definitely sees a compulsive reason to protect North Korea at such costs. Pyongyang’s communist regime is seen as a support to the Chinese Communist Party which does not find itself in a very comfortable position either. But the concerned countries especially Japan and South Korea view the development of North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities as covertly supported by China. Here, they see a fundamental contradiction in China’s stated and working policies on Pyongyang, as blackmailing the region.
The US and China are now joined at the hip where trade relations are concerned. Articles in the Chinese media suggest certain apprehensions about the relationship, hoping the visit will given Hu Jintao’s profile a boost for the rest of his tenure in leadership. Chinese experts have been assuaging American fears, if any, about the possibilities of Beijing dumping US treasury bonds. Such an action, they argue will hurt all including China. On Yuan appreciation, Chinese leaders including Premier Wen Jiabao have tried to explain, that it has to be a slow and incremental process as, otherwise, China’s export based economy will collapse.
The constants during the visit is expected as follows – US will not stop arms sales to Taiwan; President Obama will not move from his position on the Dalai Lama; the US has returned to Asia, especially eastern Asia for a long period of stay; the basic position on human rights will be reiterated.
China’s position on the Yuan exchange rate will remain inflexible; it will continue to use the carrot-and-stick policy with Taiwan; it will continue to build its military for area denial to the US; North Korea will remain its protectorate for quite sometime to come – stability of the Korean peninsula is, in a manner, linked acutely to China’s security and, in the long term , to its territorial integrity. Fears of US led encirclement of China will not be removed by this visit.
Robert Gates’ efforts to widen military relations with China failed. The PLA leaders made it clear they were not going to give the Americans even a glimpse into their strategic military doctrine and modernization.
After an interregnum because of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the Americans are back to Asia Pacific region to stay. They are making friends with old enemies like Vietnam. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear last year that it was America’s prime interest that the South China Sea remained open waters for international shipping and rejected a Chinese request to accept it as one of China’s “core” interests.
The Chinese have begun to be prone to making some foreign policy howlers. The test flight of the J-20 fighter aircraft during Defence Secretary Gates’ visit was immature. It failed to send any message. Similarly, the leaks on development of the DF-21D aircraft carrier Killer missile. Such demonstrations are only panicking China’s neighbours. Planting of a Chinese flag with a submarine on the South China Sea floor last year did not do any good to China’s so-called “friendship”, approach to the region.
The Chinese moves, which are militaristic in nature and sponsored by the PLA, prompted Australia to revise its military posture last year. Japan’s defence white paper published last December made it very clear that its threat came from China and China-North Korea combine, forcing it to upgrade its defence planning and strengthen alliance with the US. Vietnam has begun its own adjustments.
A G-2 economic relationship between the US and China is welcome in many ways. Such a relationship could persuade China to undertake some serious responsibility. But from all accounts, China is not stopping here. Late last year, China’s veteran diplomat Dai Bingguo, who is State Counsellor for foreign affairs and CCP Central Committee member, made it clear that China will not challenge the USA. In his 9,000 word foreign policy proclamation Dai assured the world that China would continue to follow late Deng Xiapoing’s strategy to keep a low profile and concentrate on development. His declaration came when the Korean crisis was about to boil over.
But there is a disconnect between China’s foreign policy establishment and its military establishment on such issues. It is becoming evident that the military establishment now has the upper hand on policies related to the USA, territorial issues, Japan and India. It is also evident that Chairman Hu Jintao and the military establishment are mutually supportive. If this trend continues when Vice President Xi Jinping takes over, it will not be a very cosy situation for the US. Mr. Xi’s distaste for the developed countries became well known during his visit to Mexico.
President Obama has to take many calls, not one. If the US is serious about a firm policy on China and the Asian region, it will be good for all including China. There can be all round stability. If the US vacillates ,China’s hardliners will overrun their realistic moderates, resulting in turbulence in the region. Both President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao may ponder on this.
(The author is a veteran China specialist)