The US hopes India will aid its attempts to confront Chinese assertiveness in the region, but Sino-Russian bonhomie and Beijing’s plans for the South China Sea could prove tough to navigate.
Ostensibly, the Hangzhou G20 summit was about taking stock of the economic situation in a world where global recovery since the 2008 crisis remains sluggish. Better coordination of monetary, fiscal and structural policies is difficult to accomplish when states become increasingly nervous and protectionist.
But to go by the tenor of our newspapers, it would seem that the global summit was a Sino-Indian match, with India repeatedly scoring points on the issue of terrorism. The tone and tenor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks, as conveyed by official spokesmen, appeared designed to shame China into chastising Pakistan on the issue.
Modi pointedly initiated his talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping by condemning the recent terrorist attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in theKyrgyz Republic. Later speaking to BRICS leaders, Modi said, “Terrorists in South Asia or anywhere for that matter, do not own banks or weapon factories. Clearly, someone funds them”. Alluding to Pakistan, he called on the BRICS countries to coordinate the anti-terror war, and isolate those who support and sponsor terror. In a subsequent intervention, he was more explicit, saying that “one nation is responsible for spreading terrorism in South Asia.”
Beijing would not have been amused, leave alone embarrassed. A country that has in the past backed Pol Pot and even today supports a range of unsavoury characters around the world is unlikely to be shamed into doing anything. The only language that Beijing knows is that of realpolitik and self-interest.
In terms of arriving at solutions to the world’s economic illnesses, the G20 came up with little. In the realm of geopolitics, however, the meeting took place in circumstances that are anything but sluggish. The recent decision of a UNCLOS arbitration tribunal on the South China Sea came in the backdrop of increased friction between the two principal global actors – the US and China. On the other hand we have an uncommonly active Russian outreach to Syria, Turkey, Japan, the ASEAN and, of course, the US.
For this reason, the meeting held on the sidelines of the summit between US President Barack Obama and Xi was watched with considerable interest. However, we must take with a pinch of salt the narrative about the Chinese snubbing Obama by refusing to emplace a rolling staircase on his aircraft, compelling him to use a smaller built-in feature in Air Force One.
The Americans issued a dry “fact sheet” on the outcome of the talks, noting their commitment “to work together to constructively manage differences and…. expand and deepen cooperation” in a range of areas.
The Chinese report via Xinhua was more nuanced. It did not list the 22 heads that the US fact sheet had, covering everything from climate change, counterterrorism and subnational cooperation on municipal governance. But what it did was to emphasise the Chinese desire to be seen as having a unique relationship with the US based on “the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”. Xi has long mooted the idea of a “new type of major country relations” between the US and China based on these three principles and he indicated that this had led to concrete achievements – including fighting cyber crimes, coping with the Ebola epidemic and facilitating the Iran nuclear deal.
Besides, he noted, that the two countries have worked together in combating climate change, advancing negotiations in a bilateral investment treaty and establishing “a mutual trust mechanism between the two militaries”.
Xinhua noted that Xi told Obama that China opposed THAAD deployments in South Korea and foreign interference in the name of human rights. Further, he called on the US to take a “constructive” stand in the South China Sea, curb “Taiwan independence” activity in all its manifestations and not to support “Tibet independence”. Xi made sure to list what China considers its expanded core interests.
In a speech to the US-China Business Council in 2012, Xi, then China’s vice president, emphasised the importance of strategic trust, saying that it would lead to better and broader cooperation. Even while calling on the need to strengthen dialogue to build mutual trust and understanding, there was need to respect each other’s core interests and major concerns. Xi spelt out what these were – Taiwan, Tibet and China’s development path. However, Beijing has never quite asked, and the Americans have never spelled out, what their core interests are.
The US and China have cooperated in a range of areas since then – piracy off Somalia, climate change, international terrorism, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, cyber issues and pandemics like Ebola.
But, the economic crisis of 2008 brought in a new trajectory in the US-China relationship, which changed the US’s somewhat benign view of China and led to what the US subsequently called its “pivot” to Asia. The problem is that Washington did not quite spell out what the pivot, later rechristened a ‘rebalance’, was all about. The US stood by as China sharply stepped up pressure on Japan over the Senkaku Islands, beginning 2008. Later, the Chinese began to consolidate their position in the South China Sea by building what were clearly military facilities.
The US response in 2012 through its so-called Freedom of Navigation Patrols was too mild to make any difference. Now, the region is confronted with a Chinese naval consolidation, along with the fact that America’s putative response, the Trans Pacific Partnership, is not likely to be going anywhere.
This is where India comes in as a new American partner, one whose “Act East” policy is aimed at providing heft to the coalition confronting China’s assertiveness.
In recent months, India has taken one step back and two steps forward here. It has dropped the specific reference to the South China Sea in its official statements relating to its desire to protect freedom of navigation and the right of overflight. On the other hand, it has perceptibly enhanced its relationship with Vietnam to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and signed a new defence agreement with the US.
Ironically, the Indian readout of Modi’s one-on-one meeting with Xi suggests that our complaints with China have a familiar ring. If the Chinese expressed their desire for the US to take heed of their core interests, Modi told Xi that “to ensure durable bilateral ties, and steady development, it is of paramount importance that we respect each other’s aspirations, concerns and strategic interests.” It doesn’t take a genius to realise that what he meant was that China should heed India’s core interests – its desire to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, its concerns over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and China’s attitude towards Masood Azhar’s proscription by the UN.
In response, Xi somewhat enigmatically stressed his willingness to work with India to “maintain their hard-won sound relations and further advance cooperation,” and to handle differences in a constructive manner. As in a mirror image of China and the US, the reportage from India does not tell us whether there was any discussion on Indian attitudes towards China’s core interests and concerns.
A much clearer signal of evolving geopolitics came from the meet between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi. According to Xinhua, the two “called for firm support in each other’s efforts to safeguard sovereignty, security and development interests.” So, in essence they would respect each other’s core interests, as well as their respective political systems. Further, they would align their strategies by “dovetailing the Belt and Road Initiative with the Eurasian Economic Union.” Clearly, the Sino-Russian entente seems to be evolving into a larger grouping, including, perhaps, Turkey, aimed at cutting the US down to size. Finally, Putin backed China’s stand against US interference in the South China Sea dispute.
With the G20 out of the way and the US getting deeper into election mode, there are some who expect China to turn up the heat in East Asia. In August, there was a sharp escalation in the number of Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels in the Senkaku-Diayou islands area. Having very publicly declared their intention of not stopping construction in the South China Sea, we may see the long-expected movement by Beijing to build new features in Scarborough Shoal. The Obama administration has not been particularly strong in its push-back and it remains to be seen what a new US president will do.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.