As we have highlighted on more than one occasion, the U.S.–Chinese relationship is at the very epicenter of the latest stage of the global chess game. However, this does not mean that Washington and Beijing are completely fixated on issues facing their bilateral relations.
Moreover, if we were to examine activity levels on the global chess board, we can see that the focus is, first and foremost, on staging events with other very influential or less powerful players, such as the EU, Japan, Russia and India, which are the game’s more important participants. The goal of these events is clear. It is to ensure a better standing in the previously mentioned nations as well as other countries and regions than the main rival.
A key tool for accomplishing these aims is to organize different types of negotiations with various participants. Some time earlier, we discussed the most recent visits by China’s leader Xi Jinping and its Premier Li Keqiang to Europe. In turn, Beijing has also been receiving its fair share of visitors, as soon as one politician from the EU or a non-member European country leaves China, another “appears at its door”.
And the “guest list” includes other powerful political figures such as Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation; Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Burma, and Vijay Gokhale, India’s Foreign Minister, who have all visited China in recent days and weeks. In addition, the PRC has been on the receiving end of extremely important signals sent by Mahathir Bin Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, to Beijing.
Most foreign political dignitaries visited the Chinese capital at the end of April because it hosted the 2nd Belt and Road Forum. We would like to highlight that organizing various regularly-scheduled forums (the Boao Forum for Asia or “Asian Davos” is the most popular event of this nature) and international exhibitions in the PRC with the aim of increasing the number of available platforms, used to collaborate with other nations, and broadening their scope is not an approach unique to China.
But it is impossible not to notice quantitative and qualitative aspects, and success of such events, particularly the ones which have been held in China in recent years. This is indicative of the fact that the PRC is becoming a global power.
For instance, officially, the President of Russia visited Beijing because he was to take part in the previously mentioned 2nd Belt and Road Forum. And he was the first foreign dignitary to give a speech there (which is important to highlight). We would like to remind our readers that Vladimir Putin arrived in China’s capital from Vladivostok, where he took part in negotiations with the leader of DPRK, Kim Jong-un, on 25 of April. It is unlikely that the aim of the talks was to reach some specific agreements. It is more probable that both sides used this opportunity to compare notes about their positions with respect to the situation in one of the most volatile regions of the world. Incidentally, the meeting in Vladivostok received positive “reviews” in China.
Still, an equally important reason for the previously mentioned visit by the Russian President to Beijing has to do with the bilateral relationship between the Russian Federation and the PRC and the increasingly problematic nature of the relations between these two nations and both Europe and the USA. As Washington and Brussels continue to perform a “dance”, as if they were multi limbed Indian deities, in response to the Ukrainian issue, centered on Nord Stream 2, and to the Skripal case, it is only natural that Moscow should seek more steady and reliable partners in the East. In addition, Russia’s pivot to the East stems from the fact our current political and economic life is irreversibly shifting from the European and Atlantic region to that of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The only thing that the senile geopolitical “dinosaurs”, suffering from age-related health problems, can do is to continue grumbling about the rest of the world, while trying to impose their dubious “moral values” on it.
The process of China’s ascendancy to the status of a geopolitical leader is occurring at a time when, we would like to reiterate, the PRC is engaged in an intense battle with the current world power, and its relations with both Japan and India, which are strong contenders for influential positions in the political chess game, are complex.
It is also important to highlight that Beijing, Tokyo and New Delhi are intent on using every available resource to prevent China’s relations with both Japan and India from deteriorating any further and transforming into a confrontation. Still, the “Beijing-Tokyo” and “Beijing-New Delhi” ties are in a state of perpetual “swing-like” movements,
which is especially true for the second bilateral relationship. By autumn 2017, the two sides had been but a step away from an armed confrontation because of the conflict on the Doklam Plateau in the Himalayas. However, in April of the following year, the future of the Indian-Chinese relations seemed rosy again after an informal meeting between the leaders of the two nations in Wuhan.
But just three months later, their prospects dimmed once again following a successful meeting between the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense (in the so called “2+2” format) of India and the United States. Since that time, the image representing the relationship between India and China remains grey, i.e. there is neither anything positive nor negative to say about it.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi declined to participate in the 2nd Belt and Road Forum. Of course, we can find an explanation for his absence. For instance, India’s Prime Minister could have chosen not to come to China because the political situation in India has intensified due to the ongoing nation-wide general elections. After all, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, headed by Narendra Modi, is currently engaged in a tough battle against the resurgent Indian National Congress party.
But the Indian Prime Minister also chose to ignore the first of such forums, which took place in Beijing in May of 2017. Hence, Narendra Modi’s absence at both of these events is indicative of the state (and “color”) of the bilateral relationship between India and the PRC.
In this context, we can view the visit by Vijay Gokhale, the Foreign Secretary of India (the 2nd most influential politician in the nation’s Ministry of External Affairs), to Beijing as a conciliatory gesture. Before being appointed to the current position (in January 2018), Vijay Gokhale was India’s Ambassador to the PRC. At that time, he was instrumental to the de-escalation of tensions during the conflict on the Doklam Plateau and to the staging of the previously mentioned meeting between the two leaders in Wuhan.
On 22 April, Vijay Gokhale met with Wang Yi, PRC’s Foreign Minister. The commentary about these talks appeared in China’s Global Times under the noteworthy title “China ready to meet India half way: FM.”
As for the competition between the USA and China, its signs are evident in practically all the nations of the South East Asian sub-region, especially in Myanmar. In this nation, Washington has been using its tried and tested political tool, which amounts to accusing its opponent of “violating human rights”. The issue at stake concerns the fate of the Rohingya people, which the New Eastern Outlook has written about on more than one occasion. Beijing can rely on support from the leadership of Myanmar’s army (its (de facto) main political force) and Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected via a fairly democratic process and is the unofficial leader of the nation. On 24 April, China’s President Xi Jinping hosted Aung San Suu Kyi during her scheduled trip to Beijing (these visits have become too numerous to count). This time around she came to China in order to take part in the 2nd Belt and Road Forum.
During the meeting, both sides expressed their mutual and all-round support of each other. Incidentally, the issue of the Rohingya people was not mentioned even once. We would also like to note that Vladimir Putin also held talks with Aung San Suu Kyi in Beijing. Russian President’s counterpart said, among other things, “We look forward to expanding our relations with Russia.”
Before the start of the 2nd Forum, Beijing received an extremely important signal from quite an influential politician in South East Asia, i.e. Mahathir Bin Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia. We would like to remind our readers that the 93-year-old returned to the post of Prime Minister (which he had already occupied from 1981 to 2003) in the summer of last year, after his triumphant victory in Malaysia’s parliamentary elections.
One of the first measures he took, after returning to power, was to suspend two projects, which the previous administration concluded with the PRC as part of the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR). He said that doubts about fairness of credit terms, offered by China for such projects, was the reason behind this move. At this point, we would like to highlight that accusations of such nature towards OBOR are, overall, quite typical of those made by Western analysts.
According to Reuters, before his trip to Beijing with the aim of taking part in the 2nd Belt and Road Forum, Mahathir Bin Mohamad had stated that Malaysia was to re-implement both projects. Still, a few days later Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a further clarification, stating that the nation was restarting the work on the two projects with the hope of receiving “more “fair” investment from China.”
Finally, we can report that the level of political engagement on the sidelines of the forum, dedicated to the key initiative for the PRC, was quite high.
Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region has written this article exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”