Jiang's US Visit: The Strategic Perspective

02 Dec, 1997    ·   34

Maj Gen Dipankar Banerjee reports on Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin’s visit to the US and draws lessons for India

What does one make of Jiang Zemin's visit to the USA? After the media hype it is time for a little sober reflection. The Indian media has indeed been rather "prickly" as Giri Deshingkar so correctly assesses in the previous article. It looked at the visit purely as an immediate concern and focused mainly on its impact on Indo-Pak relations. As a result it missed out the larger strategic picture. What does the visit imply in terms of Washington-Beijing relations in the 21st century? How will this affect the global balance, if at all? Finally, how does it affect Indian interests in the near and long terms? A brief backgrounder is first necessary.

The billion dollar incentive

Beijing clearly understands that relations between nations are now shaped largely by economic factors. The booming Chinese economy allowed Jiang to come to the USA with a fat chequebook ready to be filled in with as many zeros as necessary. This led to the Boeing deal. This US $ 3 billion arrangement is but a tip of the iceberg. In the next 20 years Beijing may need to buy aircraft worth a mind boggling US $ 124 billion. Another US $ 1.26 billion worth deal was signed during the visit. China continues to be the biggest buyer of US wheat. Its plans to upgrade infrastructure in power, railways or road construction are so enormous that it has all the major industrial nations begging for a share, creating in the process an enormous lobby in support of its policies around the globe, including the USA.

The nuclear energy accord needs to be seen in this backdrop. President Clinton said that he would certify that China was not exporting nuclear technology to Iran. All that was required of China was for its Foreign Minister to sign a letter agreeing to this. This will facilitate the implementation of the 1985 US-China Nuclear Co-operation Agreement that will open up the sale of nuclear reactors and technology that may be worth about US $ 60 billion over the years. Two points need to be noted in this regard. First, that it makes no mention of China's relations with Pakistan on nuclear co-operation. Second, the deal still needs to be passed by the Senate, where it will not sail so easily.

US-China relations in the 21st century

How does the visit measure up from the point of view of US-China relations in the 21st century? An attempt is being made to base it within an overall framework of a Constructive Strategic Partnership. What this means is far from clear. It has become the new buzzword of international diplomacy and is open to many interpretations. Currently, it seems to suggest an institutionalisation of dialogue on many fronts. Principal among them is the agreement to hold an annual meeting between the heads of state, beginning with President Clinton's visit to China, probably in 1998 autumn. The Chinese Vice Premier and Foreign Minster clarified that this is not "an alliance", but a new way of "handling relations between major countries…[that will be] conducive to regional and global peace and stability". All this falls far short of an accepted definition of a strategic partnership.

Seen from the perspective of the USA the visit was less than glorious. Wherever Jiang went he was dogged by pro-Tibet and Human Rights demonstrators. The Press briefing on the lawns of the White House witnessed an unseemly debate between the two leaders on the issue of human rights, demonstrating the wide differences that still divide their views. Finally, on many of the fundamental questions an understanding eluded both sides. No progress was made on WTO membership. More generally, the views of the American people and the Congress haven't changed in the least bit. This is where policies will be shaped in the future.

The global strategic environment of the 21st century is in a state of considerable flux. All countries are attempting to find a niche for themselves, a position of advantage. China's diplomatic offensive in the current era is a reflection of this desire. Major relations will change in this period. Japan, Russia and the European Union will be important players. Within the context of these relations Jiang's visit has made no major impact. A degree of tension will continue between the USA and China till the outlines of these relations become clearer. The tensions inherent in this relationship will make China look elsewhere for a balance to counter what it perceives as US hegemony.

Lessons for India

There are some major lessons in this for India.

  • Only a strong and growing economy integrating with the world will allow New Delhi a role in global affairs. Till then we will always be at the periphery. But, we can still position ourselves to take advantage of the current developments.

  • This can have a positive impact on India's own interaction with the USA. Already there is a shift in the US's approach towards India. While we cannot attain the high profile Washington will always enjoy in its relations with Beijing, there is a willingness, even an eagerness to do business with New Delhi.

  • Even though co-operative relations with China are necessary for Indian interests, India has to keep its antenna tuned to current global changes.

  • China-Pakistan relations are independent and will develop in accordance with their respective interests. The same is also true of US-Pak relations. India will have to approach both these countries independently and without any misgivings or baggage of the past. Only a confident India, more sure of itself and cohesive within, can approach both China and the USA without fear or favour.