Hot on the heels of his visit to our part of the world, and particularly to Mexico, a member of the North Atlantic Free Trade Area (NAFTA), Chinese President Xi Jinping flew to California, this time for consultations with the acknowledged leader of that zone, the United States. The visit, at the invitation of the American President, is perhaps the most important bipolar meeting between post-World War II great powers, since President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger travelled to China via Pakistan in 1972, for consultations with Mao Tse Tung.
That the two leaders should meet at this time does not come entirely as a surprise. For the world now recognizes the emergence of China as the second-largest economic power, a strength built for now over three decades, with substantial reliance on American technology and dependence on, or more politely integration with, the American economy. And there seems now a mutual recognition of the need for these two main economic power-brokers to try to consolidate a firmer institutional relationship, given increasing recognition by the United States of China’s determination to enhance its strategic and military power in tandem with its economic power.
In recent years there has been substantial talk of China’s potential ability to manipulate the American financial system, and exploit its expertise in technological innovation. And in turn, American officialdom, as well as its business class, have become more and more concerned with that country’s competitive potential vis-à-vis a US economy acknowledged to be in need of post-recession revival. So it is also no surprise that virtually a first item on the Obama-Xi Jinping agenda, has been not some major issue of global affairs, but an American complaint about China’s breach of American private enterprise’s cyber security, with China’s industrial innovators being accused of cyber hacking.
Yet the encounter between the two Presidents is certainly more than about business, or China’s economic pre-eminence. It differs from the Nixon-Mao meeting which took place at a time when the strategic confrontation was recognized as being between two countries acknowledged as the clearly dominant powers – the United States and the Soviet Union. And secondly, at a time when the US itself was eager to solicit China’s influence in settling its prolonged, stalemated and increasingly domestically unpopular conflict with Vietnam, extended into Laos and Cambodia. And in that sense, that meeting, psychologically striking as it might have been, did not immediately signal a change in the global strategic balance of power.
Today, the United States recognizes China as having a substantial influence on how the countries of the Asia-Pacific area elaborate both their economic and foreign relations policies. The US is almost in a competition, as it were, for holding the allegiance with countries which have been part of its informal empire in that area for a long time.
At the same time, China recognizes, that with a certain diminution of Japan’s economic strength, and with the 1945 tying of Japanese hands as a strategic power (one in possession of nuclear weapons), that its own rise is creating a certain degree of fear about its strategic intentions, even when countries in that Asia-Pacific arena recognize the necessity for closer economic inter-relationships with the Chinese economy.
In that connection, it has been noticeable that Australia, a member of the Cold War organization, the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), and fervent supporter of NATO, has, over at least the last decade or so, been deliberately reorienting its economic and foreign relations polices towards that area, and taking a substantial interest in orienting those policies to encouraging stablisation of China-South East Asia relations.
China’s recent challenge to Japan and the Philippines, not to speak of Taiwan, which it considers a renegade from its sovereign territorial entitlement, has certainly caused a heightening of the fear felt by the other Asian powers, that they must continue to have a counter-power in the region, the only possible one being the United States.
In that sense, in recognition of the increasing concerns of its Asia-Pacific allies, the US has been awakened to what it long considered its post-World War II responsibilities in that part of the world. And it is in that sense too, that President Obama, in the second part of his first term, developed the concept and strategy of a US “pivot to Asia” – an orientation publicly indicating to his country’s allies there, that the US recognized the need for a more effective balance of power in the area, given the increasing strength of China, and that country’s assertion of its geopolitical prerogatives.
But President Obama’s United States clearly recognizes that the long reign of American geopolitical unilateralism in the area since the defeat of Japan is really no longer permissible. And along with this goes a recognition that, as in other parts of the world, a balance of power needs to be arranged between itself and the major emerging Asian power, China.
Obama, it would appear, recognizes too, that the difference between the old US-Soviet Union balance of power is that there is an integration of economic relations between the US (which the cyber security issue certainly reflects) that inhibits any desire to unilaterally establish what would seem to China to be a predominantly one-sided, US-dominant balance.
Hence the discussions and negotiations of the last weekend, designed by the US to find the basis for the two countries defining mutually recognized long-term interests in Asian regional, and indeed global, affairs, so as to inhibit any miscalculations about the ability of either of them to unilaterally act against this or that country in the area.
We emphasise too, of course, that the willingness on the part of the US to define commonalities of interests there, in geopolitics as well as in economic policy-making, is partly induced by the heightened integration of economic relations between the two of them, and a consequent need for the integration of economic policies – in trade and in monetary affairs in particular, in order to avoid a disruption of their economic relations on which they have increasingly become mutually dependent.
The Obama-Xi Jin Ping encounter marks the initial steps towards what the US would wish to see as the decisive end of the unhindered expression of unipolar power in today’s global political and economic relations, particularly in the Asia Pacific area where herself and China dominate.
A determination, acceptable to other states, of what kind of institutional arrangements are necessary for working this balance of power, if the continuing talks are to be successful, is critical. But there is no doubt that certain emerging, large powers of that arena – India, Indonesia, to name two ‒ and then Russia which still considers herself an Asia-Pacific power, will be extremely watchful of this new US-China initiative. And so will the United States’ historic post World War II ally, Japan.