Diplomatic tai chi

When Lang Lang, a resident of New York, was invited by the White House for a piano recital at the banquet for Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington DC on January 19, no one really bothered to check the music he would play. The score he played had Mr Hu beaming and the Chinese Internet users delighted.
According to commentators like Matthew Robertson, early morning TV viewers in China knew about an hour or so in advance that Lang Lang would play the song My Motherland. The melody selected by the pianist was the theme song from the 1956 Chinese propaganda film of Korean War days — Battle on Shangganling Mountain (Triangle Hill). The song refers to the Americans as “jackals” (some say it is “wolves”) and the victory at Triangle Hill was meant to depict victory over imperialists.
Quite obviously, Mr Hu’s hosts did not know the significance of the song. Apparently they were quite satisfied after the mandatory reprimand the US President had delivered to his guest when he spoke of the need for China to observe human rights so long as Mr Hu bought $45 billion worth of American goods. Whatever spin the Americans and the White House might put on this incident now, it is being seen as a great propaganda victory in China.
The question is, was this a carefully-choreographed plan by the Chinese who knew that they would receive the par-for-the-course lecture on human rights and values of democracy even as the two countries remain locked in a economic-trade-currency embrace, and the Americans had to be given an immediate response on their home ground? Or does this reflect a tussle of some sorts in Beijing between an assertive People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which may want a bigger role in foreign policy in the decade ahead, and a political leadership that is now going to be in transition as Mr Hu prepares to hand over power to his selected successor, Xi Jinping, by 2012? And therefore this exercise of display of assertiveness with each power centre positioning itself inside China and positioning themselves against the US where there will be presidential elections in 2012.
All of 2010 saw a more assertive Chinese foreign policy activity in its periphery, including India. The New Year began similarly when the Chinese arranged the leak about their new J-20 stealth fighter just hours ahead of US defence secretary Robert Gates’ meeting with President Hu on January 11 in Beijing. The word is that this fighter is based on US technology having got some of the technology from an American F-117 that was shot down in the Balkans in 1999. Apart from this, the Chinese also revealed that Shi Lang, the first of six Chinese aircraft carriers, will sail later this year; and the Dong Feng 21D missile, which is capable of sinking a US aircraft carrier, is now a part of the Chinese Second Artillery Corps arsenal. The message is that the western Pacific is more and more a Chinese domain. The gauntlet has been thrown by a China that has hubris as the other superpower on its way to attaining its pre-ordained position in the world.
If China’s military assertiveness is the new factor that worries the Pentagon, it is the Chinese quest for technology that has in many ways made this assertiveness possible today. China’s economic rise is not merely export driven. It is based on the principle and practice that to be competitive in the global economy, China would need to innovate and indigenise. Above all factors today, it is innovation that will drive growth and competitiveness, and this is only possible through a well-integrated education, research and infrastructure. Three years ago, the Chinese were the fourth-highest spenders on research and development at $66 billion. The concentration has been on hybrid electric vehicles, high-speed rail and solar power systems — the future for transport, energy and communications (American Progress, January 14, 2011, report). This is something we lack and a mere Nano and an LCA (Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas) are far too inadequate. They do not qualify as 21st century innovations.
Inevitably, a major event like the Hu visit evoked comments from the old cold warriors of the previous century, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. The former had broken the ice between Beijing and Washington and the latter had arranged the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two. Kissinger took the first step towards the creation of a rising China against the Soviets and now speaks of the need for the two countries to interact globally and avoid another Cold War. Mr Kissinger sees the need to build an emerging world order as a joint enterprise. Mr Brzezinski gave us the Afghan jihad that thrives today, and the few “Islamic hotheads” that he scorned at then have become a global menace. He too stressed on the need for the US and China to collaborate on global issues like North Korea and West Asia. This one supposes is a continuation of the G2 principle that US President Barack Obama first enunciated when he visited China in November 2009.
At first, seemingly lukewarm and reacting to President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and arms sales to Taiwan, China now assesses that its moment has come and demands that it be heard as an equal partner.
The Hu-Obama joint statement spoke of close cooperation on climate and energy problems and “deeper bilateral engagement and coordination” on “a wide range of security, economic, social, energy and environmental issues”. Platitudes apart, the two countries, despite their differences on economic issues, are expected to work together on many others. China may have risen for its neighbourhood but not enough to take on the US frontally.
The internal debate in the US whether China needs to be contained or engaged and co-opted will continue. Whichever way we look at it, China will engage the US attentions far more than India. Also, neither of these global powers will jeopardise their bilateral relations for India’s sake. In the final analysis, India is going to be fairly alone.

Vikram Sood is a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency

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