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What does Xi Jinping mean by ‘Asia-Pacific not being an arena for big-power contest’?

Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasised that no attempt to wage a new Cold War would be allowed ‘by the people or by our times’, while addressing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in Bangkok, Thailand.

The Asia-Pacific is nobody’s backyard and should not become an arena for big-power contest, said Chinese President Xi Jinping. Likewise, no attempt to wage a new Cold War will ever be allowed by the people or by our times, he added, addressing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO summit in Bangkok, Thailand.

This Xi said after his talks with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, earlier. Their talks became critical for regional and global peace in the aftermath of the Ukraine War, accompanied by bilateral tensions over Taiwan. There is then North Korea’s revival of missile tests and accompanying mutual recrimination and threats with Washington. Analysts said that the North Korean missiles would threaten the security of East Asia and the larger region, going all the way up to the US mainland.

The US-China message from Bali was that there won’t be another Cold War, leave alone a hot war, though there will be all-round competition between the two nations. “We’re going to compete vigorously. But I’m not looking for conflict, I’m looking to manage this competition responsibly,” Biden said after talks with Xi.

In a post-meet statement, Xi still called Taiwan the ‘first red-line’ that must not be crossed in the US-China relations. This was after Biden claimed to have assured Xi that for decades the US policy on Taiwan has been to support both Beijing’s ‘One China’ stance and Taiwan’s military. It remained unchanged. He said there was no need for a new cold war, and that he did not think China was planning a hot one. “I do not think there’s any imminent attempt on the part of China to invade Taiwan,” Biden was quoted as saying further.

Strategic, constructive, but…

The positivity of the Xi-Biden talks was carried into the Chinese leader’s meeting with the US vice-president Kamala Harris, also in Indonesia in what is seen as an American keenness in particular to keep the bilateral lines of communication open. At talks with the Chinese leader, ‘I noted a key message that President Biden emphasised in his … meeting with President Xi: We must maintain open lines of communication to responsibly manage the competition between our countries’, Harris tweeted later.

A Chinese statement after the Xi-Harris meet described the talks as ‘strategic and constructive’ with ‘major significance in guiding the next stage of China-US relations’. The statement hoped that vice-president Harris would play an active role in working with China to promote the two nations’ relations ‘to return to a healthy and stable track’. To this end, the US secretary of state Anthony Blinken will be flying to Beijing soon, to take forward the bilateral talks from where the two presidents had left it at Bali.

However, a new irritant in bilateral ties, hence to regional peace in East Asia / Asia-Pacific, may arise if Harris sticks to her original plan and sets foot to Palawan island, near the disputed Spratly Island, in South China Sea, as originally planned to be a part of her official visit to the Philippines this week. Harris will be the first top official from another country to visit Palawan, and will be received on board a Filipino Coast Guard vessel.

Under a 1951 agreement, the US is obliged to help the Philippines against foreign aggression. As is also known, not only China and the Philippines but also Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan have laid individual claims to the Spratly group. After being provoked by China in 2009, the Philippines also obtained an injunction from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, in 2013, which dismissed China’s ‘historical claims’ to the resources within the island-chain.

For the US, Harris’ visit to Palawan Island is important, as the incumbent Filipino President, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, is keen to revive bilateral ties. His centre-left predecessor Rodrigo Duterte had threatened to break the ties, and was also going slow in seeking enforcement of the international award on the Spratly. For both the US and China, they cannot be seen as weakening after mutual reassurance and assertion of equality/equity at Bali.

More unpredictable

It looks as if both the US and China are ready to push back their recent tensions over Taiwan, especially after North Korea began testing ballistic missiles that reportedly have a range to reach up to the US mainland, supposedly by avoiding American air-defence systems. It was supposedly in response to expanded military exercises between South Korea and the US, but if the latter was in anticipation of the former is unclear.

At one stage in its serial testing, North Korea said some of them were simulations of nuclear attacks on South Korean and US targets. It is not unknown that for a long time that North Korea had wanted to increase its nuclear attack-capability. The Western perception is that the muscle-flexing is aimed only at obtaining more concessions from them than to attack either South Korea, Japan or the US. As if with the latter in mind, North Korea’s foreign minister Choe Son Hue warned that the recent US-South Korea-Japan accord has left tensions in the Korean Peninsula ‘more unpredictable’.

Choe’s statement came after President Biden’s recent trilateral summit with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Cambodia. In their joint statement, the three leaders strongly condemned North Korea’s recent missile tests and agreed to work together to strengthen deterrence. For America’s part, Biden reaffirmed the US’ commitment to defend South Korea and Japan with a full range of capabilities, including nuclear arms.

Choe said the more the US and its allies ‘intensify provocative and bluffing military activities… the fiercer (North Korea’s) military counter-action will be’. He went as far as to say, ‘The US will be well aware that it is gambling, for which it will certainly regret.’ Already, his country has maintained that its ongoing weapons tests are legitimate military responses to what it calls military drills between US and South Korean forces, and inclusion of Japan in the training, which it sees as a precursor to an invasion. Washington and Seoul have said their exercises are defensive in nature.

Indications are that thanks to the North Korean testing, the US might have re-set its priorities for the region, putting Taiwan on the back-burner as long as China does not act provocatively or pro-actively, whichever way one looks at it. The twin statements that neither side wanted a new cold war thus implies that Xi too might have given cause for Biden to feel at ease over Taiwan, at least for now.

Biden’s reference to the US’ ‘One China’ policy in talks with Xi seems to be conciliatory. This is so after he had dispatched outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan some months ago, for nothing other than as a message, when possibly none of the kind was needed, or would have worked, had it come to a bigger showdown than the one the two enacted. Incidentally, the loss of House Majority for Biden’s Democratic Party in this month’s biennial elections has meant that Pelosi won’t be Speaker now.

Looking at it from a Chinese perspective, it has gained nothing from the Xi-Biden talks and the follow-up Xi-Harris exchanges. While it has given the impression to go slow on Taiwan, which is a plus for the US, the latter is also strengthening its position in East Asia, after Biden’s trilateral summit with the leaderships in Japan and South Korea, and also on the Philippine front. How Beijing intends to view this situation will be keenly watched.

Taking off from Modi…

For now, whether it is Biden who said that he and Xi had agreed against a new cold war, or Xi who said that ‘Asia-Pacific should not become an arena for big-power contest’, they were knowingly or otherwise reflecting/repeating what Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said rather crisply and with universal application. Talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the side-lines of the Samarkand SCO summit in Uzbekistan, Modi said, ‘It is not an era of war’.

Both Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar have reiterated the Indian idea since the summit in different fora. More recently at the G-20 summit in Bali, India reportedly worked for having the idea written into the joint communique. In more ways than one, that has also become the spirit behind the Xi-Biden statements, though made separately. Xi, as may be recalled, had also said near-similar things as Modi, to Putin at Samarkand.

There is another twist to the tale, rather a sub-text — and a query. Is Xi’s declaration against ‘arena for big-power contest’ confined to Asia-Pacific as he mentioned, or does it also include other potential geo-strategic flash-points of the world, say, Indo-Pacific? And is Biden’s references of a ‘new Cold War’ also confined to the former, and not the latter too?

Immediate question

When the US coined the new phrase ‘Indo-Pacific’ and propagated the idea in the background of the ever-growing ambitions of an empowered and expansionist China, some strategic thinkers had opined that the US as the sole superpower had shifted gears away from South-East Asia, or what the Western media used to refer to as ‘Asia’ in the Cold War era. It implied that there was nothing to hold American geo-strategic interest in the Asia-Pacific, they felt. That was not to be, as Taiwan and North Korea were always there — and both Beijing and Pyongyang seem too keen to tie down the US there.

The immediate question for New Delhi and the strategic community in the country is where does China place India in its scheme of geo-strategic thinking? Is it a few rungs below the self? This is when China wants the world to equate with the US, without actually being there. Or, is it on par with the self, or with acceptance of the possibilities of both meeting India somewhere there sooner than later?

Likewise, where does the US friend of India too think of India’s rise and its timeline in the coming years and decades? Does it look at India growing as fast, as big and as strong as China, with the US itself remaining above ‘em all? Or, does the US anticipate China to grow as big as itself sooner or later, or the US itself slipping a few notches in geo-economic and geo-strategic terms, and end up meeting China as a near-equal, somewhere along the line — leaving India behind in the second rung, despite New Delhi’s ever-growing geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic upswing?

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