Accommodation between the US and China has been growing steadily in recent months. To meet immediate objectives the new US policy appears ready to yield space to a resurgent China. The Obama administration has rearranged its foreign policy and strategic agenda with China with issues like trade, climate change, energy, and cooperation on the Iran and Korean Peninsula nuclear issues, gaining in emphasis. The concerns of countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including those having special defence agreements with the US, occasioned by China’s growing military might have been relegated to the backburner. So have issues like currency revaluation and human rights.
The importance being accorded by the US to China, first evidenced on the occasion of Hillary Clinton’s first visit to Beijing as US secretary of state in February 2009, was again on display during the recent two-day (May 24-25) second US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue held in Beijing. Hillary Clinton and US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, both designated as Obama’s envoys, chaired separate sessions. They were accompanied by 200 officials, including 15 secretaries and administrators from over 40 US government departments, described gushingly by Clinton in her opening remarks as the ‘largest ever’ official US delegation to visit any country.
The dialogue, with opening remarks by Chinese President Hu Jintao, concluded with agreements on a number of issues including cooperation in hi-tech areas of energy and nuclear safety, and joint research on alternative energy resources, medicine and energy security. China’s official media reported the US as ‘flexible’ on the issue of sale of hi-tech dual use technology to China in the context of reducing the trade deficit. It was agreed that youth exchanges should be promoted to improve understanding and dispel suspicions. The US is preparing to send 1,00,000 students to China over the next four years. The dialogue discussed international and regional issues and South Asia. Both countries pledged to hold a new round of sub-dialogues on Africa, Latin America, East Asia, Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia, to identify opportunities for cooperation on ‘regional and international challenges’. The sub-dialogues are to be held before the next meeting of the strategic and economic dialogue. The dialogue also saw resumption of military contacts between the two countries, suspended since the US announced arms sales to Taiwan. Issues assessed as likely to be the subject of lengthy discussion, like currency revaluation, were not mentioned at all, except casually in the speeches of Hu Jintao and China’s People’s Bank governor. Though the issue of the alleged sinking of a South Korean ship by the North loomed large over the meeting and imposition of punitive measures was discussed by the US, South Korea and Japan, Beijing declined to take a position.
Some low-key but pertinent developments occurred in the peripheral period surrounding the US-China dialogue. They indicate the deliberation with which both countries, especially China, are taking steps to try and ensure that US-China relations stay on an even keel and that suspicions about China in the US are gradually dispelled. A little publicised event was the training programme organised for senior US government officials in the Qinghua University, Hu Jintao’s alma mater. The programme was arranged for 17 career US officials with 10 or more years of service. A Chinese media report observed that the officials were carefully selected to ensure that they would continue in service long after the president’s term and use their knowledge while formulating policy on China. The officials represented 10 US government departments including NASA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Seven were from the US military. Beijing is simultaneously trying to improve the atmosphere before the G20 Summit, scheduled for June, with a visit to the US by Chinese Communist Party politburo member Liu Yadong, prior to the summit.
China scored a few foreign policy successes during this period, which bring the US-China engagement into sharper focus. A couple of them particularly have implications for India. These include the US allowing, and substantively assisting, state-owned Chinese companies to exploit copper deposits in Afghanistan. Indications are that agreement exists for China to exploit the other mineral resources with which Afghanistan is richly endowed. The second is the withdrawal by the US of its objections, to allow China to sell two 340 MW nuclear reactors valued at $2.37 billion, to Pakistan. It is unclear whether this is in compliance with IAEA provisions, but approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group is yet to be obtained. Beijing has long been pressurising the US to grant Pakistan a civilian nuclear agreement similar to that the US has with India, but the US has so far declined. In order to elicit Beijing’s support on the Iran and North Korean nuclear issues, however, Washington appears to have acquiesced to Beijing’s sale of the reactors to augment Pakistan’s Chashma nuclear facility. Both developments underline China’s enhanced international stature. They demonstrate the substantive nature of discussions held between the US and China on regional issues and South Asia — where Afghanistan, Pakistan and terrorism certainly figure — and China’s growing importance to the US.
Beijing separately emphasised its independent relationship with Pakistan during this period. The day the second US-China dialogue opened in Beijing, Chinese defence minister Liang Guanglie, while on a visit to Islamabad at the head of a 17-member delegation on May 24, signed an agreement to provide Pakistan with four trainer aircraft and $9 million for training of the Pakistan armed forces. The two sides agreed to increase military cooperation and ‘strategic communication at all levels to overcome the challenges being confronted by the two countries’. The Pakistan Air Force is set to soon acquire the first of four Shaanxi ZDK-03 airborne early warning and control system (AEW&CS) aircraft. Meanwhile, a retired Pakistani naval commander, Muhammad Azam Khan, suggested, in the latest issue of the ‘US Naval War College Review’, that Pakistan could even have the option of ‘leasing’ a Xia Class SSBN.
The agenda for the second US-China dialogue outlines the parameters formulated by the Chinese and US presidents at their summit meetings in September and November 2009. It effectively recognises China’s enhanced status and demonstrates that it has a substantive role in international and regional issues. While this has raised concern in the region, their deliberations on South Asia and ‘regional issues of concern’ require to be more carefully monitored by India. Issues like NPT and Kashmir would be on their combined agenda.