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Seeking parity, Hu Jintao visits the United States

Last updated on: January 17, 2011 16:14 IST

New Delhi would be keenly watching this week's visit by China's President Hu Jintao to the United States. For, previous such visits and their joint communiqués and projects have impacted, mostly in a constricting manner, on India, writes Srikanth Kondapalli.

After hosting leaders of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council last year, New Delhi would be keenly watching this week's visit by China's President Hu Jintao to the United States. For, previous such visits and their joint communiqués and projects have impacted, mostly in a constricting manner, on India.

A major portion of the discussions as well as outcome between Hu Jintao and US President Barack Obama is expected to be related to bourgeoning trade deficits (estimated at nearly $400 billion in favour of Beijing), Chinese currency devaluation, market access, nuclear proliferation issues related to North Korea and Iran and addressing the equation between a militarily assertive China and a US wanting to be a 'resident power' in Asia. Yet, as was the practice previously, both are likely to touch on sensitive regional security issues in South Asia, Indian Ocean and beyond -- to the detriment of New Delhi.

Four themes are likely to sway relations between the US, China and India in the coming decades including jockeying for political influence, global market share in investments, trade and innovation, competition for strategic resources and raw materials and military modernisation and dominance. Clearly, the US is at the head of the table despite the recent Chinese assessments of depletion in the American power and reach.

Establishment and improvements of relations with the US is beneficial for Beijing -- indeed contributing in a large measure to the rise of China on to the world stage. This is also reflected in policies. As China's trade with the US increased from $12.88 million in 1979 to $443 billion in 2010, the US policy towards China correspondingly underwent significant change from considering Beijing as a 'non-enemy, non-friend' to a 'responsible stake-holder' under the Bush administration till September 2009.

Subsequently, the Obama administration sought 'strategic reassurance' from Beijing, even as it considered relations with China in Group-2 format of managing global and regional security issues. Recently, Washington went a step ahead by terming Beijing as a 'constructive cooperator' in warding off a number of global and regional traditional and non-traditional security issues. These are signs of global power transition.

On the other hand, Beijing insists that any political and strategic improvement in relations with the US should be first based on overcoming strategic level mutual mistrust -- a similar demand it imposes on New Delhi. In addition, China wants increase in interactions at various levels to gauge the other side while suggesting that China and the US should 'jointly cope with regional and global challenges'.

The Chinese desire was fulfilled in the November 2009 joint statement between Hu and Obama when they stated in Beijing that both are "ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region". While China appeared to have insisted that Kashmir should be brought into the ambit of Sino-US joint efforts, no such explicit mention was finally made in this joint statement.

In the light of President Obama seeking India's engagement with East Asia, during his November 2010 visit to New Delhi, it needs to be seen whether Hu Jintao would be able to push again for US-China joint efforts in South Asia.

However, last year had indicated how a rising China could alienate itself from its neighbourhood and beyond. These are reflected in a series of  hard-line policies by Beijing viz aggressively stoking fire on territorial disputes vis-à-vis Kashmir, Senkaku Islands and South China Sea islands; stiffening tone on human rights abuses in Tibet, Xinjiang and other places as also reflected in Beijing's call to boycott Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for jailed activist Liu Xiaobo; discreet pressure on the US government to rope in budgetary deficits (estimated at $14 trillion) and prune its financial management by citing its investments in the US Treasury Securities (estimated at more than $1 trillion), etc.

The US was also constrained by a matching China in the military field, although this may not be reflected in the joint declaration this week. A number of incidents however indicated to an emboldened China which appeared to seek the US withdrawal from Asia.

These included the October 2006 trailing by a Chinese submarine with USS Kittyhawk near Okinawa, March 5, 2009 trailing by five Chinese vessels with USS Impeccable in the South China Sea and Chinese objection to US-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea following the suspected North Korean sinking of Cheonan corvette in March 2010 and Yeongpyeong firing incidents. Also, China's advances in nuclear and ballistic missiles, aviation, space and cyber capabilities are posing concerns not only to the US and its allies in East Asia but for New Delhi as well.

Srikanth Kondapalli is professor in Chinese studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Srikanth Kondapalli