October 13, 2011

The dragon has landed

Seema Sirohi | Oct 13, 2011, 12.00AM IST 

Washington: Projecting an image, like power, can be tricky for a country because you should neither hype nor hide the real picture for maximum impact. The image can be designed to help achieve larger political and strategic goals. China has achieved a near-perfect balance where its aura-building bolsters its diplomatic agenda in the US and elsewhere. Americans feel a combination of fear, awe and reverence when they deal with the Middle Kingdom.

China has managed to create a parallel universe in the American mind, which it inhabits alone, largely unhampered by history or disputes or neighbours. To the extent they exist, they do so at their own peril. Chinese "sensitivities" must always be considered, or China will become an adversary, a self-fulfilling prophecy no one wants to contemplate. This is the mantra of many influential American academics and policy experts, the chanting of which is encouraged by Beijing and its vast network of friends. If China throws out a nifty slogan (Peaceful Rise in the 1990s) to obfuscate intentions, it is quickly adopted as part of the local discourse.

India, other countries and their disputes barely enter this narrative. If they do, they make a guest appearance as irritants and are dealt with as an aside, no matter how serious the problem or allegation. China sees itself as the centre of the universe where its resurgence is not an anomaly but its eclipse was. The world must see it the same way. With Israel's exception, officialspeak from no other country permeates American thinking as much as that from China. Whether it is Beijing's feigned indifference towards India or its blistering attacks against New Delhi for the 1998 nuclear tests, most US experts buy the line without the context.

It is partly because they study China with little cross-country emphasis. A US expert on China is rarely interested in India and reads history from one perspective - the Chinese. There are no chapters on China arming Pakistan with nuclear and missile technology or on the constantly changing stand on its border dispute with India. Chinese provocations, incursions, bunker-busting antics do not register. The director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins last month dismissed the spike in Chinese aggressive behaviour as "the unskilled period" of diplomacy which was already over. He clearly wasn't aware of the many recent instances involving India. He stressed the US was in no economic shape to fashion the new Asian order by showing up at what was essentially China's party. In other words, let China "deal" with Asia, a line that Beijing is happy to promote.

The Democrats have repeatedly bought this logic for some reason. Two presidents - Bill Clintonin 1998 and Barack Obama in 2009 - issued joint statements with Beijing, bestowing upon it a role no other country wants it to play, save Pakistan. Obama even flirted with the idea of a condominium of the G-2 with China and the US in partnership to solve the world's problems. Fortunately, he abandoned the project quickly but not before raising serious questions in New Delhi and East Asia.

The evolution of this China-friendly narrative is not entirely natural or innocent. Beijing exercises extreme discretion and leverage over US academics it permits into the country. They go to officially sanctioned think tanks, meet certain Chinese academics and visit Communist Partybigwigs and come back to write "safe" analyses. Those who dare to write critically are denied visas and blacklisted. For life-long academics and heads of China departments, the lure of returning to China unhindered is often great, sometimes greater than the crush of reality or the denial of access to the rest of the one billion Chinese. There is also the blinding dazzle of China's extreme success: if they can deliver so much, so quickly and so well, they must be doing it right.

This exclusivist framework has set over a period of time starting with Richard Nixon's historic opening to China in 1972 with attendant strategic thrills of countering the Soviet Union. China became the vast new frontier for American academics and universities for scholarship. As commercial relations grew, "friendship societies" and trade associations began mushrooming. Helped by Chinese Americans, they kept the focus on China alone.

But a key in creating the "awe" factor around China was Henry Kissinger, Nixon's brilliant strategist who initiated the first contacts with secret trips via Pakistan and a fake fever. He helped shape the narrative and remains China's friend-in-chief to this day, tactical modifications of his policy positions notwithstanding. China has enjoyed the benefits of Kissinger's deep hold on Washington, cutting through Democratic and Republican administrations over 40 years. He lobbies for Chinese interests and regularly appears as the unquestioned guru of foreign policy on American television.

By comparison, India has neither had a grand patron nor a grand plan to help shape its story line. If anything, India was a target of Kissinger's bile and strategies for a decade. But its own ruling elite must also share the blame for the shortage of India expertise today. Prickly attitudes and strong suspicions about US intentions shut out American academics from India for nearly two decades. Visas to genuine researchers were blocked as punishment for the anti-India policies of their government. As a result India lost an entire generation of scholars and experts, who would have provided a balance. It is desperately playing catch-up, trying to encourage a spate ofSouth Asia programmes in US universities. But the fruits of this labour will be apparent only down the line.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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