The broad outline of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement became the
leitmotif of the weekend's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in
Honolulu, Hawaii. But a long road lies ahead to know whether a platinum-quality
agreement will be able to overcome the "noodle bowl" of overlapping free-trade
agreements in Asia or end up merely adding another bowl of noodles within the
In immediate terms, though, Honolulu served one purpose: it gave clarity to the
state of play in the complicated United States-China-Russia relations. At
high-level meetings statesmen seldom begin with pleasantries the way US
President Barack Obama did when
he sat down on Saturday with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev.
Obama said he had heard his friend "Dmitry" was spotted in a Hawaiian shirt
"walking and enjoying the good weather" in his birthplace, Honolulu. Obama's
spirits evidently lifted the moment his eyes fell on the comforting sight of
"Dmitry". He was coming out of a tough meeting with Chinese President Hu
Jintao, whom at his most informal he would address as "President Hu" after
their nine meetings in the past three years. For Hu, too, "Barack" will remain
The current idiom of the US-Russia-China exchange is revealing. Even as the
US-China relationship has come under the weather lately, things began to look
up for the Russians. Moscow experienced disappointment during the George W Bush
presidency, whereas Beijing looks back at those times with nostalgia. Moscow is
pleased that Obama is someone with a "desire not only to listen but to hear
others", as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described recently.
There is nothing particularly happening between the US and Russia at the moment
to explain the Obama-Medvedev bonhomie. In fact, a terrible thing happened only
most recently when Medvedev stepped aside and made way for Vladimir Putin in
the race for the Kremlin in 2012. No matter how much Obama tried, and his
Western allies dutifully encouraged, Medvedev wasn't convinced that Russia
needed his leadership in the Kremlin for another six years.
The rhetoric that the 21st century is going to be America's "Pacific century"
gave an unprecedented backdrop to the proceedings to Obama's nine-day tour of
the Asia-Pacific, ominously hinting at a "Cold War style" US containment
strategy toward China. But Honolulu instead presented a breathtaking display of
US-China interdependency that doesn't easily lend itself to archaic Cold War
The US-Russia economic relationship is small change compared with Sino-American
traffic. China can breathe life into the American economy and even possibly
lift it from the pit, whereas the Russian economy is at best coping well for
itself in these hard times. The US has no need of Russia's best offerings - oil
and gas - whereas these are magical potions that could give a trillion-dollar
ballast to the Russia-China relationship.
At Obama's APEC CEO Business Summit question and answer session, which was a
highlight of the US president's agenda in Honolulu, no one cared to utter the
word "Russia"; it was all "China, China, China". Corporate America has no death
wish to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Its demand is two-fold: China
must give greater access to its market and should do more to give protection to
US intellectual property rights.
The chief executive officers told Obama that what was needed was engagement.
Reuters news agency took a poll among US business executives who were at the
session with Obama and found that as many as 40% said their "single-biggest
growth opportunity comes from the rise of spending power" in China.
However, Obama's meetings with Medvedev and Hu also had some common features.
Neither meeting produced any concrete outcome. Obama told the media that Russia
and China would help place pressure on Iran over its nuclear program and that
Medvedev and Hu agreed with him on the problem. But the Russians and the
Chinese have since conveyed an entirely different position.
No sooner had the Russian delegation taken off from Honolulu that Lavrov told
the Russian press party that the latest International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) report on Iran "contains nothing new" and provided no further evidence
that Tehran was developing nuclear weapons.
Lavrov caustically observed that the IAEA report seemed to "stir up passions in
public opinion and prepare the ground for imposing some kind of unilateral
sanctions" against Iran. He repeated Russia's opposition to any new sanctions
in addition to those already imposed by the United Nations and the US.
Similarly, on Monday in Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman echoed
Lavrov's rejection of the sanctions route. He said, "Simply put, we believe
pressuring, including blindly using economic sanctions, does not at all achieve
the desired effect. From a long-term approach, we still want to resolve this
problem through dialogue."
Again, Obama singled out Syria as one of the "world's trouble spots" that he
discussed with Medvedev, but the latter merely nodded that Syria was discussed
alongside the "situation in the Middle East" and Afghanistan.
However, the next day, a senior Russian military official maintained that
Moscow would honor all its military contracts with Damascus and warned against
a "repetition of the Libyan scenario" against Syria. Neither Obama nor Hu
bothered to mention Syria in the recap of their meeting.
The Obama-Hu meeting turned out to be a tough negotiation. Privately, Obama was
more conciliatory than his rhetoric suggested. Hu told Obama that China would
not be hustled on the yuan currency issue but "China will steadily advance the
reform of the exchange rate mechanism with the goal of ensuring a market-based
and managed floating exchange rate system that is tied to a basket of
But Obama recapped later: "Enough's enough. We're going to continue to be firm
that China operate by the same rules as everyone else. We don't want them
taking advantage of the United States."
Rhetoric aside, however, the message from Honolulu is once again that US-China
ties constitute a very complicated relationship, but it is a long-term one that
promises to be mutually beneficial and the negotiations at Honolulu leave
enough to mull over for both sides.
The point is, an altogether new vector has surged lately in US-Russia-China
equations. The Russians have given way to the Chinese as the favorite whipping
boy of US politicians aspiring to public office.
United States politicians on the campaign trail tend to cross limits and say
awful things and Obama will come under growing pressure from Mitt Romney, who
might be his Republican opponent in the 2012 election, to match the latter's
rhetoric on China.
And both Obama and Romney are having a hard time matching Rick Perry, a
Republican contender: "I happen to think that the communist Chinese government
will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues."
The Russians must be relieved that after some six decades or so they are no
longer an animated topic in US presidential elections. Nonetheless, they remain
unemotional. As he left Washington for Honolulu, Obama announced that Russia
was going to be accepted as a full member of the World Trade Organization (WTO)
Quite possibly, Washington expected a quid pro quo on Iran. But in the event
that didn't happen. Medvedev graciously acknowledged Obama's "active and
interested support" on WTO membership and even praised the Obama administration
as the most supportive US administration Russia had ever dealt with, but he
also brought in the "need to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment" as another
residual issue of the Cold War era. It denies most favored nation status to
certain countries with non-market economies that restrict emigration.
Lavrov recently rated the US-Russia reset as "constructive and pragmatic
cooperation". In an interview last week, he flagged that missile defense
remained a major sticking point - "the question is not moving. The flat refusal
to discuss anything that might limit US plans in this area ... reinforces our
conclusion that it won't be possible to come to an agreement. We will try to
continue to negotiate."
Lavrov said even though the Obama administration was striving toward
multilateralism, it was not above a unilateralist "desire to dominate in a
common position" although the US no more had the resources or financial and
political clout and was "in need of forming support groups ... [But] we will no
longer tolerate an ambiguity that penetrated the resolution on Libya. Americans
However, Lavrov expected that "this very painful process" of a conclusive purge
of the US's unipolar predicament "will take decades" to happen.
Lavrov's Chinese counterpart would probably go along with the assessment. The
Honolulu meetings brought out that Russia and China have more in common than
they thought. Indeed, the US invited neither into its initiative on the
proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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