AS the turn of the millennium approaches, US president Bill Clinton has adopted a new policy of "principled pragmatism" toward China. Gauging the emerging geo-strategic balances, he recognises that Sino-American relations will be one of the most pivotal international relationships of modern history and that the crucial issues of world peace, prosperity and security will revolve around the interaction of the world's largest and richest nations. Experts believe that the very character of the next century may well be moulded by Clinton's China visit and how the two nations deal with a wide range of challenges, such as mitigating the effects of Asia's financial crisis and easing the threat of nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan in South Asia.
India is clearly frustrated by the US' failure to accord it an international status equal to communist China, says a diplomatic observer in Washington. Clinton's decision to discuss India with Chinese leaders, he notes, has "exasperated Indians...they are happy that the US is finally viewing India as the other great Asian power and want China and India to resume a dialogue as equals. But they are also displeased because Clinton is giving China a special role as an arbiter to solve disputes in South Asia".
That exasperation came to the fore last week when the Indian government and media reacted angrily to what they perceived as the hypocrisy of Saturday's joint US-Chinese declaration. The declaration condemned recent nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan and promised to work together to discourage a nuclear arms race in South Asia.
That China has now teamed up with the world's most powerful nation to tackle issues in South Asia can only be "bad news for India", the diplomatic source points out. The perception that America was engaged in a subtle rearrangement of its Asian relationships, putting China atop the VIP list ahead of traditional allies Japan and Taiwan, also sent shock waves through the region. Visions of a cosier US-China relationship have unsettled Tokyo, which is worried that any American flirtation with Beijing might somehow endanger its vital security links with the US.
It is a notion US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, accompanying the president in Beijing, strenuously rejected. "They shouldn't be rattled," she insisted. "We can have more than one friend." Heavily dependent on the US for weapons and political protection, Taiwan also has little recourse if America chooses to "feed Beijing", says China expert Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has been determinedly restrained as Clinton and treasury secretary Robert Rubin criticised Japan's economic policies to audiences in China—a developing country with an economy one-seventh the size of Japan's and one that remains dependent on Tokyo's capital, trade and aid for its modernisation efforts.
When the US national security advisor Sandy Berger was asked what message other governments in Asia, including India, should take from the new US-China relationship, he responded: "Every leader we have met from Asia has encouraged us to develop a good, strong relationship with China. Well, we haven't had a conversation with the new Indian government of great depth, although we look forward to having discussions with them.... I think that the nations in this region know that we are not forming an alliance with China. They know that...an improving relationship with China is not directed against any of them, but that stability in China and bringing China into the global and regional regime is to their advantage. "
Asked what she thought of India's harsh condemnation of the US-China joint statement, Albright said Indians are behaving as though "everyone is out of step with them. They had better stop dismissing statements like this because they are dismissing what is a very evident signal from the rest of the world that what they are doing has not gained them stature".
The Stimson Centre's Michael Krepon says that he would like to stress "two positive elements in the US-China joint statement that have not got much attention in India. One, China's recommendation to adhere to export control regimes and its commitment under the NPT vis-a-vis Pakistan. Two, Kashmir was not mentioned, which means the US is trying not to internationalise the issue." Krepon noted that it was a matter of great concern to him "that the president did not include some South Asian expertise at the Beijing summit. Portions of the statement are regrettable and there are other omissions." He notes that New Delhi's strong rebuttal only demonstrates its "hypersensitivity, which does not enhance India's stature, but diminishes it.... When a civic group from Hiroshima visits India and is not welcomed, when a United Nations delegation visits the region and is not welcomed, how does this demonstrate India's self-confidence and growing stature in the world?"
Several long-time China observers, including former US ambassador James Lilley, argue that the best way to judge the impact of the Clinton-Jiang meetings would be in terms of what they accomplished on the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. "The lack of specific joint actions that Washington and Beijing are prepared to take in light of the troubling South Asian developments is not likely to be taken as a good sign," he feels.
Although China's participation in the global debate after the nuclear tests this spring is a step forward, Beijing is still a bit standoffish. "My sense is that China believes it gains by being there (in the debate) but is the one least willing to be drawn into group initiatives," Lilley adds. It is a perception that New Delhi will find reassuring.
ASKED why the US was pushing for more Chinese involvement in South Asia when it was obvious that India would oppose this, an official at the State Department said the US government felt China was part of the solution. "It was India that involved China in the first place, so why is it objecting now? Do you think the problem of South Asia can be solved without China? China also has the ability to influence Pakistan.... It is not our intention to get together with the Chinese to force solutions upon India and Pakistan. But India has to recognise that solving problems in South Asia is going to require some involvement by China as participants in the discussion. India has asked us to recognise that it has security perceptions that go beyond Pakistan. We do see this and that is why we want China involved."
The official conceded that Washington was well aware of India being resentful about China, a communist country with a long-drawn-out history of nuclear proliferation, finding favour with the Clinton Administration while India, a democracy with no record of proliferation, is taking a drubbing. "That might well be so, but India has only itself to blame for how things stand today," he said.
A Congressional source too had little sympathy for India's annoyance over the US wanting to involve China as an arbiter of disputes in South Asia. "It was India that brought China into the picture, not just as a reason for its nuclear tests, but also with defence minister George Fer-nandes' outrageous statement. So why is India in a sulk because the US wants to involve China?" he asked. "Obviously, China is contributing to India's sense of insecurity because of transfers to Pakistan of nuclear parts and technology. But the US has worked hard to eliminate these transfers and India is far better off today because of this. If we hadn't hammered the Chinese over the head about this for years, the transfers would have been much greater. But this policy had certain costs—our relationship with Beijing may have been far better today if it wasn't for this. India's angry statement in retaliation to the US-China joint declaration does not take into account that Washington worked hard and achieved significant successes in this area."
Asked what he thought of India calling the US-China statement "hegemonistic" and reflecting the "mentality of a bygone era", he responded, "India is simply on the wrong side of history."
It is interesting to note that soon after President Clinton's call for China to be involved in South Asia to settle disputes between India and Pakistan, China called itself a "regional heavyweight". A commentary in the official Xinhua news agency observed that destabilising influences were on the rise in the Korean peninsula, in Southeast Asia and in South Asia and felt that the Clinton administration needed to work with China in maintaining stability. Clearly, this round has gone to Beijing.