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20 November, 2012

All eyes on Asian nations

BRP Bhaskar
With President Barack Obama winning a second term and the Chinese Communist Party picking a team headed by Xi Jinping to lead the country for the next 10 years, the men who will steer the world’s most powerful nations in the immediate future are in position.

While the Chinese party congress, held once in five years, was on, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta were in the Asia Pacific region, which Obama had identified last year as the new pivot in US foreign, economic and security policies.

How the two nations tackle their internal problems will have its impact on the world. If the US fails to negotiate the fiscal crisis smoothly, it may slide into recession, pulling down others with it. China’s economy has slowed down but is still robust enough to play a big role in global recovery.

Xi, the new General Secretary who will replace Hu Jintao as China’s President next March, Li Keqiang, who will succeed Wen Jiabao as Prime Minister, and Wang Qishan, Vice Premier in charge of economic affairs, are cautious reformers. The others elected to the powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee are said to be conservatives. Two strong reformers and the lone woman candidate were defeated.

Experts feel that the emphasis the US and China place on continued expansion of exports may limit their ability to play a constructive role in the global economy recovery.

India last month marked the 50th anniversary of the disastrous China war of 1962. As usual, the media discussed the event without reference to the right-wing jingoism which had forced the government into ordering forward troop movement, which angered Mao’s China, which was itching for some action anyway. China did not rekindle war memories the way India did.

India realises there is no possibility of an early resolution of the border dispute which precipitated the war. However, it expects economic preoccupations to help maintain smooth bilateral relations. The two countries are working together in multilateral forums like BRICS.

There are sore points, though. China suspects that India, like Japan, may be drawn into the US game plan for the Asia Pacific region, aimed at containing it and preventing it from playing its role as a global power. India is gingerly watching Beijing’s efforts to boost its presence in its immediate neighbourhood, particularly Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Clinton and Panetta were in Australia for the annual security meeting with that country’s leaders. Ahead of their visit former prime minister Kenneth Keating talked of the limits on Australia’s foreign policy options resulting from the ties with the US. Clinton found it necessary to state that Australia does not have to choose between the US, its long-time ally, and China, its biggest trading partner.

Later, making his third visit to Asia in five months, Panetta attended a meeting of Defence Ministers of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia. He also visited Thailand for talks on strengthening military ties.

The high point of the ongoing US activity in the region is this week’s visit by President Obama. On his itinerary are Cambodia, venue of the East Asia summit, Thailand and Myanmar. It was only in July that the US resumed diplomatic relations with Myanmar which were snapped a decade ago to pressure the military junta to move towards democracy.

The annual East Asia summit brings together leaders of 18 nations, including the US, Russia, China, Japan and India.

Playing down the China angle in the US activity in the region, a State Department official accompanying Hillary Clinton said: “We want to work with China. We recognise that the Asia Pacific region is big enough for both of us.”

However, different signals too have emerged. The US-China Economic and Security Commission, in a report to Congress, said China, which is modernising its military at a remarkable rate, may have advanced land, sea and air nuclear delivery systems in the next two years. It wants the US to “get a better handle” on the size of China’s nuclear arsenal and nuclear doctrine. There are reports of renewed activity in the abandoned US bases in the Philippines and attempts to secure new bases elsewhere in the region.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 20, 2012.

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