While Mr. Modi and US President Barrack Obama discussed several multilateral issues of common interest, including long term strategic issues such as China’s new assertiveness, the issue of climate change was central to the Obama-Modi talks.
While major powers, in particular China, have already pledged their CBDRs (Common but Differentiated Responsibilities), India is expected to announce its CBDRs in early October.
However, Xi Jinping’s US visit was important for several other reasons.
For the Chinese President, it was the first State Visit with a 21-gun salute on the White House lawn, an elaborate reception and a succulent ‘Sino-American’ menu for the State Dinner to which 240 selected guests from the US Industry and even Hollywood, were invited.
Before the visit, Reuters had mentioned ‘5 big challenges’ and their possible outcomes for the Sino-US relations.
First was ‘cybersecurity’ which has been the source of tension between the 2 superpowers.
Then was ‘climate change’: China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and last year, it had pledged “to work towards a new global climate change agreement” to be agreed during the Paris’ UN Climate Change Conference in December.
Economy was a third issue on the agenda. Reuters says: “China’s faltering economy and perceived slow progress on market reforms are major concerns for global investors worried about its openness to foreign competition. The nation drastically devalued its currency in August, sending waves through global markets.” A bilateral investment treaty between Beijing and Washington is still far away.
More tricky was the tensions in the South China Sea. Beijing has recently developed a number of artificial islands and military infrastructure in the South China Sea causing “considerable concern from neighbouring countries and putting pressure on the US to address the conflict” said Reuters.
And of course, the Human Rights issue. Here Beijing is not ready to discuss anything, often citing the poor human rights’ records of the United States, where a Black has many more chances to be killed by a policeman than a White. Xi just agreed that human rights and democracy were important pursuits, “but that reforms would proceed in time with China’s timetable.”
Even for Washington, it was certainly not the most urgent issue to tackle, though it is useful for ‘public consumption’.
Incidentally, the Dalai Lama was in the US at the same time as Xi, but due to health problems, part of his program had to be cancelled; in any case no ‘official’ meetings had been planned.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) spoke of ‘goldilocks problems’ faced by China: “When President Xi Jinping visits the United States, the mainland public is bound to receive wall-to-wall positive coverage of what Beijing has pledged will be a successful trip. But underneath the pomp and pageantry, Xi may find himself facing an American audience that is increasingly ambivalent towards China.”
The Hong Kong newspaper cites “a host of security and economic issues is a shifting balance between the two countries as China's clout continues to grow.”
An analyst commented “For nearly 30 years, a sense of opportunity for business and trade, …but now you have fear, anger and worry".
Let us look at the issue of cybersecurity.
Xi Jinping and Obama pledged to curb commercial cyberespionage.
The two governments announced that they would soon launch biannual ministerial-level talks. Xi stated that ‘lot of consensus’ had been reached with Obama, who asserted that both countries would refrain from state-sponsored cyber-theft of intellectual property.
It is easier said than done. Will the NSA stops peeping into Chinese servers? Will China rein in its hordes of hackers? And what is ‘commercial cyberespionage’? Will military espionage be allowed? Where is the limit between the two? Obama even admitted: "The question now is: Are words followed by actions?"
Though both leaders highlighted some areas in which the US and China could work together, they also acknowledged that many differences remain.
The Chinese media argued that Obama reiterated that the US would not interfere in Hong Kong and did not support ‘independence’ for Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang. Is it possible?
More important was the issue of the South China Sea. Xi reiterated China had the right to uphold its territorial sovereignty and that Beijing did ‘not intend to pursue militarisation’ of the artificial islands.
What means ‘militarisation’?
In the midst of the visit, the SCMP reported that according to Chinese military sources: “China might press on with land reclamation in the strategically important South China Sea despite US President Barack Obama’s warning.”
Xi ‘confirmed’ that the islands were Chinese territory from ‘ancient times’ and Beijing had the right to uphold its maritime rights.
A source close to the Chinese military told the SCMP that Beijing would carry out reclamation …when necessary “China needs those artificial islands and airstrips in the South China Sea, because [the area] is a supply base for its navy and air force in the Asia-Pacific.”
Reclamation is bound to continue and though it is more and more worrisome for the neighbours, the US can’t do much about it.
These thorny issues were discussed during a private ‘informal’ dinner. For almost three hours, the two leaders, with a couple of aides, talked about the burning issues straining bilateral ties. Analysts say that it was an opportunity for the two leaders to ‘know each other’.
As Xi was leaving the dinner venue (at Blair House (sic), a guest residence nearby the White House), the American President waved at his guest and said ‘ni hao’ (‘hi’ in Chinese).
Will it be enough to sort out all the difficult issues? Probably not.
At the same time, Xi tried to project China as a ‘responsible’ stake-holder.
Xi pledged billions to battle climate change; in the joint statement, Beijing said that it will “make available 20 billion yuan (3 billion US $ billion) through a bilateral fund to help developing countries combat climate change”.
A few days later, Xi announced at the UN that China will take the lead to set up a permanent peacekeeping police squad, building a peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops, and again pledging one billion dollars.
But at the same time, Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao reported that China may have recently conducted a successful test of the fastest hypersonic aircraft in the world.
It quoted the website of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), which mentioned an initial test flight on an unspecified high-altitude, super-fast aircraft with a ‘unique flying style’. The report was deleted shortly after. Analysts however believe that Beijing is developing a new hypersonic aircraft that can travel at five times the speed of sound.
Though commentators say that for Xi, the opportunity to make personal connections with America's business and political leaders was important, it does not mean that China will be changing its ‘core’ positions.
Just before he left for the States, a report titled "The US-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017" had been released by the RAND Corporation, a US-based think tank. It argued: “Admitting that the People's Liberation Army still trails the US Navy considerably in terms of technology and skill, the gap has narrowed gradually between 1996 and 2017.”
Xi knows that, but China will not relent till it reaches the ‘level’ of the United States, which is Beijing’s ultimate objective.
A lot of tensions in perspective!
Narendra Modi’s visit was on a more peaceful and economic note.