‘G-2’ Of Two Weightiest Countries ~ salman haidar
AS China has risen, the USA has grappled with the task of coming to terms with this constantly more prominent reality on the international scene. This has not been a smooth process, indeed it has been marked by many disagreements and considerable friction. From time to time, various negative features of China&’s emergence have been emphasised in the USA and other Western countries, such as its record on democracy and human rights. Official agencies have led the criticism, and, taking their cue from them, numerous NGOs have vigorously taken up the cause. Especially noteworthy as a matter in which concerted pressure has been directed at China from the international community is the demand for the revaluation of the Chinese currency, where China has been unyielding and there have been sharp differences between it and others. Several other issues have taken centre-stage from time to time and provoked harsh exchanges, making the relationship between the first and second economies of the world an uncertain one. For further complication, the two countries have developed rather different diplomatic styles that can on occasion reduce mutual comprehension, the USA&’s being on the whole more personal and less predictable while change in China, when it comes, can be more drawn-out and measured. Such differences of style induced a knowledgeable Chinese academic to remark that it takes a new US Administration a year to adjust to China before it is able to get down to serious business. But with all their differences, the two powers have not ceased to remain closely engaged with each other and in the process to steadily enlarge their area of cooperation.
This was to be seen during the recent visit to the USA of Chinese President Xi, one of his earliest foreign trips since he took power. He had extensive meetings with President Obama and from all accounts a useful relationship was established between the two leaders, which can have a helpful impact on their future dealings. This in itself is slightly unusual in that personal equations do not normally come into the reckoning in diplomatic dealings with China. Yet even during this initial goodwill visit, allegations that China was indulging in extensive cyber espionage directed at the USA were rife. China repudiated the accusations which began to sound increasingly tenuous as reports of the USA&’s own monitoring of cyber traffic became known, yet this issue emerged as the current central point of their bilateral differences, as other comparable issues did on previous occasions when the leaders of the two countries met. However, differences on this significant matter which has global implications, were not permitted to overshadow the summit meeting.
Mr Xi&’s visit raised again the spectre of a ‘G-2’ of the two weightiest countries combining to form the ultimate global authority. Indeed, there are some analysts who are of the view that this is what should now be accepted as the necessary course for the future, especially in economic matters. The G-8 of developed economies had to yield to the G-20 which added major emerging economies to what had become an insufficiently effective grouping, and now in turn it is necessary to acknowledge that the USA and China must be on board if any substantial decisions are to be taken. So it is argued that the USA should make room at the top for China rather than resisting its rise, which in any case cannot be contained. China itself in its public discourse has projected a rather different view of its priorities and continues to regard itself as a developing country that has much to do at home before adding to its international responsibilities. How to deal with resurgent China is a many-layered debate that has preoccupied foreign affairs commentators and practitioners for many years and Mr Xi&’s US visit has given it fresh impetus.
When viewed from India, a rather different picture of what the visit could signify takes shape. China is India&’s most potent neighbour and what happens there cannot but have an impact on the region, including India. The many ups and downs of the past decades are well known and do not need to be recounted here. Over the last few decades the two neighbours have succeeded by and large in maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship, and China&’s rise as an economic colossus has not been regarded as a threat to India&’s essential interests. On the contrary, India has been able to develop its ties to the point that China is now its largest trading partner, and there are ambitious plans to take trading exchanges rapidly forward. To a considerable extent this is the fruit of the enlightened policy initiated by India from the time of Mrs Indira Gandhi to de-link economic issues, where mutual benefit was apparent, from the political differences that are much more unyielding and difficult to resolve. Beyond the bilateral tie, there is a shared realisation that great changes in the international configuration are under way and the post-World War II arrangement is not there for eternity. In Asia, a rising China is complemented by a rising India and the two major emerging Asian countries have affirmed again and again their belief that there is room for both and neither has to make way for the other. Doubts have not been entirely banished, especially in matters of maritime strategy, where both countries are on a path of active development, but if rivalries have advanced, so too has cooperation. It is not a simple relationship.
India has resisted suggestions that it should see itself as an exemplar of democracy as opposed to China, and find its natural partners in like-minded democratic countries in the Asian region. Some talk to this effect was heard when India&’s Prime Minister recently visited Japan, whose current problems with China have become more marked. But reaching out to other Asian democracies, as was suggested by some analysts, would not have been consistent with India&’s established approach of independence of judgment and promotion of peace as the mainspring of its foreign relations. So India has not been responsive to such ideas, which in any case have had no authoritative backing anywhere.
Given its own interests and established diplomatic practice, India cannot but feel unsympathetic to any notion of a new G-2 being established in international affairs. No such development seems to be currently on the cards and there is no call to attach excessive significance to the fallout from the recent meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Xi. The important trend of the last few years is that of multi-polarity, as several major countries apart from India have broken free and made important strides onwards. It is in India&’s interest that this trend should continue and be reinforced.
The writer is India&’s former Foreign Secretary