Yesterday, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing announced that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will begin a three-day visit to China on January 13. There are long-running border disputes and fundamental disagreements between the Chinese and the Indians. Not one will be settled during the brief moments when Singh actually sits down for talks with his counterparts.
Although the itinerary has yet to be announced, it’s clear that the visit will be filled with a series of high-profile events and made-for-television handshakes. In short, Singh’s sojourn in the Chinese capital will resemble the smiles summit that the Chinese staged for Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda late last month. For example, Singh, if early reports are correct, will also address Chinese students at one of Beijing premier universities.
There is no such thing as coincidence when it comes to Chinese diplomacy, at least when relations with China’s big-power rivals are involved. So we need to ask ourselves why Beijing is engaging in content-less diplomacy at this moment. Optimists, of course, will say that the country’s foreign policy is maturing and Beijing wants harmonious relations while it hosts the Olympics. Pessimists—I prefer to call them “realists”—might think that the Chinese are covering their flanks in preparation for misadventure elsewhere in the region. For example, Beijing may be thinking of intensifying pressure on Vietnam—the two countries are already involved in an especially nasty phase of their long-running territorial dispute over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. Or perhaps the Chinese are thinking of taking a bite out of Taiwan, such as a quick grab of its outlying islands.
In any event, China is undoubtedly trying to woo Tokyo away from Washington and prevent New Delhi from getting even closer to America. To the extent that China has any grand strategy at this moment, it is to push the United States out of Asia and make itself the unquestioned hegemon there. That means, at a minimum, Washington, in addition to problems elsewhere, needs to think about the next steps toward consolidating its relationship with India. The problems in the Middle East are important, of course, but superpowers never have the luxury of concentrating all their attentions on just one problem or region.