United States President Barack Obama's 10-day Asia trip exposed the limits of
America's influence, though a short-term setback doesn't add up to the entire
"Sometimes because we've [US] gone through a tough couple of years, there's a
tendency for us to think that somehow Asia is moving and we're forgotten,''
Obama told the media. "And in fact, I think everywhere in Asia, what I heard
from leaders and people is that we are still central, and they want us there."
A meeting of foreign ministers from Russia, India and China on Monday confirms
Obama's tidings that the US foothold in Asia is planted on firm ground. With
the strengthening of US ties to Russia and India, and the aggravation of
tensions in US-China
relationship the backdrop in Wuhan, the ancient city on the banks of the
Yangtze River, it was the Russia-India-China (RIC) triangle on which fissures
were opening up.
Having got into bed over the Russian thought that the three Asian powers have a
shared destiny which they should probably mould together, the ministers' 9th
meeting was in a fix - like in the love-shack lyric by Noah and the Whale: "I'm
a fox trapped in the headlights/And I'm waiting for the tires to spin over me
The RIC originated from a growing realization by the mid-1990s that the Bill
Clinton administration wouldn't accommodate Russia as a partner. Then Russian
president Boris Yeltsin visited China in April 1996, and for the first time the
two countries described their relationship as evolving into a "strategic
'Westernism' engages Russia
The wheel has come full circle today. As the RIC foreign ministers got into
their breakfast on Monday morning, Russia's formidable Proton-M carrier rocket
was delivering into orbit the SkyTerra 1 satellite - among the largest and most
powerful telecommunications satellites ever built in the US with a 22-meter
L-band reflector for mobile terminal links complemented by a 1.5 meter Ku-band
antenna based on the famed Boeing 702 Geo-Mobile platform.
And as they opened their morning newspapers, the lead story was the meeting
between Obama and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at Yokohama on the
sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Obama spoke
optimistically about getting US Senate ratification for the Strategic Arms
Thanks to the "reset" with the US, Russia hopes to join the World Trade
Organization (WTO) in 2011; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has
invited Russia to join its missile defense project for Europe; and Russia is
about to partner NATO in Afghanistan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said over the weekend that Moscow and
NATO may "put an end to the post-Cold War period" at the upcoming summit in
Lisbon on Friday. (Obama and Medvedev are scheduled to meet again in Lisbon).
Lavrov revealed that the agenda was agreed during NATO secretary general Anders
Fogh Rasmussen's visit to Moscow in the previous week.
The odd man out is China. Again, the Organization of Security and Cooperation
in Europe is holding a historic summit in December in Kazakhstan, where Beijing
is kept out. The Russian involvement with NATO in Afghanistan deprives the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization of its gravitas.
What may hurt China most is that the US is rolling back the Caspian energy
rivalries. The prospects for the South Stream and Nord Stream gas pipelines
have brightened. Russia is assuming long-term obligations as energy supplier to
the European market. Conversely, Moscow will be in no tearing hurry to find
alternate Chinese markets for energy exports. The Russian-Bulgarian agreement
on Friday on South Stream enables the project to take off ahead of schedule -
Washington is applying brakes on Sofia no more.
The reset caught China by surprise. Chinese commentators were sanguine until
recently that it was unworkable. But the reset vindicates Obama's belief that
the preservation of American power is best achieved by jettisoning his
China snubs India
Similarly, what Obama achieved during his recent visit to India has been in
effect to "reset" US-India ties. The US has gone far to meet Indian aspirations
as an emerging power. The "strategic" content of Obama's visit was: US
endorsement of India's bid to become permanent member of the United Nations
Security Council; removal of restrictions for transfer of dual-use technology
to India; support for India's membership of technology control regimes; and
India's decision to effect massive arms purchases from the US.
Beijing has taken comfort so far that China is far more important to the US
than India ever can be. Given the Pakistani military's hold on the jugular
veins of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Beijing estimated that Obama was in no
position to antagonize Islamabad by wooing Delhi. Factually, the estimation was
correct, but then politics is not all about facts.
The overture to India comes at a time when India's economy is poised to rise at
a sharper pace than China's. A People's Daily commentary concluded: "Obama's
whirlwind tour to India is a proof that the US strategic focus has been shifted
from Beijing to Delhi."
China is the only remaining permanent member of the UN Security Council
withholding support for India's bid to join the club. Indian officials expected
that Obama's endorsement would put Beijing under pressure. At Wuhan they were
in for a setback. The joint communique retracts from the RIC's earlier stated
The last RIC meet in Bangalore in October 2009 went so far as to "[reiterate]
that their countries attach importance to the status of India in international
affairs and understand and support India's aspirations to play a greater role
in the United Nations." Whereas, the Wuhan formulation is: "The ministers of
China and Russia appreciated the role played by India in international
As recently as last Wednesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said:
supports reasonable and necessary reform of the Security Council. We maintain
that priority should be given to increasing developing countries'
representatives at the Security Council so that they can play a bigger role
there ... Attaching importance to India's status in international affairs,
China understands and supports India's aspiration to play a bigger role at the
UN and will stay in contact and have consultation with other UN members
including India on the UN and Security Council reform.
staffers at Wuhan apparently tried to negotiate but Beijing wouldn't relent.
What caused the sudden hardening of Chinese stance we do not know but an
earlier meeting between Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna and his Chinese
counterpart Yang Jiechi likely contributed. Taking exception to recent Chinese
moves suggestive of a questioning of India's sovereignty in Kashmir, Krishna
apparently expressed the hope China would be sensitive to the Kashmir issue "as
we [India] have been to the Tibet Autonomous Region and Taiwan".
Intriguingly, Indian officials then took the unusual step of publicizing the
sensitive exchange, which suggests Krishna was probably grandstanding. A series
of calibrated Chinese moves have tested India's patience lately and hawkish
sections within the Indian establishment are demanding a response. Krishna also
came under criticism in India for being too passive during his visit to
At any rate, this is the first time Delhi drew such a dramatic parallel between
Kashmir, Tibet and Taiwan issues. Beijing is unused to taking punches
(including counter-punches) involving the status of Tibet and Taiwan and it is
unclear how Delhi hopes to flesh out this complicated analogy - Tibet and
Taiwan are not territorial disputes.
It will be unkind to say Obama prompted the Indians to get into all this
although the buoyancy of his visit might have acted as a factor in Indian
thinking. Significantly, Indian officials have claimed credit for rebuffing
Chinese moves to introduce negative references to the US in the communique. Is
anyone in Washington listening? Between the lines, Indian briefings show traces
of irritation towards Moscow as well for identifying with the Chinese position
on regional and international issues. Clearly, the fizz has gone out of the
In sum, the US inability to tighten its trade deal with South Korea and
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner failed to get a Group of 20 deal on trade
imbalances led to awful headlines for Obama. However, the larger implications
of his Asia trip have been overlooked. The underlying theme was to develop
regional counterweights to China, and there he is succeeding.
Neither Russia nor India will join any US-led alliance a such. Obama's
brilliance lies in nonetheless promising tailor-made partnerships with the two
countries, which meet their respective aspirations as emerging powers. The
Kremlin is walking a tight rope and is steadily deepening Russia's strategic
understanding with China while exploring the potentials of the Obama's offer of
reset. In comparison, Obama has a far more receptive audience in the Indian
Beijing is groping for an answer to Obama's statecraft. The Wuhan meet was a
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.