In contrast to a flagging American foreign policy, China is hitting all the right notes in forging relationships and configuring partnerships

The cancellation of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to South-East Asia, and the two separate tours of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to the region can be seen as geopolitical markers of our times. The energetic Chinese foreign policy — which has seen Xi hop across a dozen nations in three of the world’s six continents this year, including an intriguing trip to the Caribbean — contrasts with the seeming American lassitude all around.

This is most evident in Asia, where the self-declared American pivot to the region — already diluted by being renamed a “rebalance” has become hostage to a virtual civil war between the Republican and the Democratic parties. In the meantime, China has moved to shore up relations with strategic neighbours Russia and Central Asia and now to repair ties in South-East Asia that have been frayed by its muscular assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Xi undertook a whirlwind tour of South-East Asia beginning with a two-day visit to Indonesia earlier this month, followed by a visit to Malaysia and culminating in his participation at the 21st informal leaders meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation at Bali. To underscore the Chinese determination in wooing the ASEAN bloc, this visit has been followed by Premier Li Keqiang’s October 9-15 tour which saw him first in Brunei to attend the 16th China-ASEAN leaders meeting, the 16th ASEAN plus three (China, Japan, South Korea) summit and the eighth East Asia summit, and then in Thailand and Vietnam.

Overwhelmed by crises

There is more than an element of irony in the fact that at the same time President Obama was compelled to cancel his four-nation, weeklong trip to the region on account of the political crisis in the U.S. He had planned to visit Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as attend the APEC meeting in Bali, followed by the Brunei East Asia summit. It is not clear when Mr. Obama will finally find time to visit the region which has a key role in America’s Asian “rebalance.” As for Central Asia, the Americans seem to have disengaged entirely; even in Afghanistan, there is continuing and discomfiting talk of the “zero option” or the total pullout in 2014.

It is difficult to avoid the sense that the U.S. is being overwhelmed by the double whammy of domestic political and economic crises, accompanied by external developments. America may be the world’s sole superpower, but that also means bearing a disproportionate share of the world’s headaches be it in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and island disputes of China. The domestic political crisis is more insidious because it could be signalling a desire of the deep establishment to retrench foreign commitments on a longer term basis. The U.S. has a huge domestic agenda, both political and economic, and there is little indication that it is anywhere near evolving ways to deal with them. With some variations, the same could be said of Europe and Japan.

The U.S. is deeply aware of the geopolitical challenge that China poses. The articulation of the Asian pivot was one manifestation of this. Another was the call to press new trade arrangements through the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership which would bypass the blockade on the Doha round of the WTO and provide a fresh economic impetus to the western world.

Washington got off the blocks first in 2009-2010 by challenging Beijing over its handling of its maritime disputes in the South China Sea with a clutch of ASEAN nations and with Japan in the East China Sea. In 2010, China reportedly conveyed to the U.S. that the South China Sea now constituted a “core interest,” implying that it was non-negotiable. At the ASEAN Regional Forum meet in Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton riposted that “the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” and called for a multilateral mechanism to resolve the disputes arising from China’s outlandish claims in the South China Sea in relation to the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. The American stand was welcomed by the ASEAN states that were locked in the seemingly hopeless struggle against China. This, in turn, encouraged the U.S. to capitalise on the sentiment and declare its pivot to Asia.

In all this, the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute between Japan and China occupies a special space because the situation there remains fraught and little has been done to address the issues. However, it has led to a strengthening of the U.S. military alliance with Japan and, in that sense, reinforces the logic of the “rebalance.”

Chinese measures

The Chinese have backtracked on their “core interest” assertion and have now nuanced their stand. At one level, they have taken a number of administrative measures to cement their claims. First, has been the creation of a new Sansha city, an administrative body with its headquarters in the Paracel islands. Second, special powers have been given to the border police in Hainan to board vessels and regulate shipping in what China says are its territorial waters. Third, has been a consolidation of the entire maritime domain by the creation of a State Oceanic Administration.

In 2002, China and ASEAN had signed a Declaration of Conduct through which they had agreed to “resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations.”

But China has shown little haste in developing this into a practical code of conduct.

Beijing has consistently refused to discuss the disputes in any but a bilateral forum and its adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Agreement, or the law of the sea, is fitful at best. It has walked away from a Philippines effort to use the UNCLOS mechanism to resolve the dispute. But it is invoking UNCLOS in its dispute with Japan.

New tone

But there is an important straw in the wind signalling a new tone in Chinese policy. This was contained in Xi Jinping’s speech at a special study session of the party’s politburo on China’s maritime issues at the end of July where he reiterated an old formulation of Deng Xiaoping, termed the 12 character guideline, which essentially noted that in the island disputes, “sovereignty remains ours,” but China was ready to “shelve disputes and pursue joint development.” This was underscored by Foreign Minister Wang Yi who, during the course of a South-East Asian tour in early August noted that the eventual resolution of disputes could only be reached through bilateral talks and would “take time,” and in the meantime, there was need to pursue the Code of Conduct for handling problems peacefully.

The Xi-Li tours to South-East Asia, therefore, appear to be part of a larger strategy where China, having drawn its lines on the sand in the South China Sea, is now seeking to moderate its fallout. In the larger geopolitical framework it would appear that Beijing is working with the assumption that it has a window of some three or four years in which it will take the U.S. and Europe to hack their way out of the self-created maze they are in.

This is the period in which Beijing needs to reach out and consolidate new relationships and configure partnerships that will help China assume its rightful place as a world power of consequence.

In the 19th century, Britain initiated the Great Game to limit Russian power. The Great Game today is about the rise of China, and the U.S. effort in remaining number one, come what may. The 21st century game is not about containment, which is simply not possible when each is the other’s second largest trading partner. It is about competition to be the number one economic and military power in the world and, in that sense, it is about winning and losing and its consequences thereof.

(Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)

More In: Comment | Opinion