In a Chinese soup

Hillary Clinton’s current swing tour of Europe and Asia confirms a pattern of engagements set around this question.Just before she started on the journey, by all accounts important for America’s economy and its global military strategy, President Obama inexplicably decided to poke Beijing in the eye. No previous US president had hosted the Dalai Lama at the White
House. Obama did. The Chinese predictably fumed.

Then, by the time Clinton landed in Delhi on Monday, the White House had scaled down the incident. Tibet was still a part of China, it declared. Why did Obama do what he did when he should have been worrying how to avert the looming default his country was facing? (Here too, the Chinese seemed to be as interested if not more than the president. It was their billions held in US treasury bonds after all that were at risk.)

On her first stop in Europe on Friday, Ms Clinton met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. They discussed the Russia-China opposition to the Nato bombing of Libya. They also discussed Afghanistan as seen through the prism of the Shanghai club. She will meet Lavrov again in Bali next week where everyone is planning to place curbs on China’s manoeuvres in the Spratly Islands. The Chinese will be there to respond.

Clinton’s talks with Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna have not ended in New Delhi. She will meet him again in Bali, this time along with Pakistan’s newly named Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

Just as you were beginning to ask ‘But where is China in this?’, Krishna revealed the full scope of his talks with his American guest. He was projecting India’s interest in China’s sea lanes nothing less.

“We discussed our shared interest in peaceful and stable Asia, Pacific and the Indian Ocean region, and the evolution of an open, balanced and inclusive architecture in the region,” he told the media in Clinton’s presence.

“We will continue to work together, and with other countries, towards this goal through various mechanisms, such as our bilateral dialogue, the regional forums and our trilateral dialogue with Japan.” A trilateral dialogue, when it involves the
United States, in a meeting between Japan and India, cannot be just about trade and environment.

As if on cue, the day after the Krishna-Clinton press conference, New Delhi announced the Indian president’s plan to visit South Korea and Mongolia. The itinerary betrays ingredients that Henry Kissinger would see as being of a piece with American
Plan B for China. Has Plan B been activated? If it is, it will look like a Chinese board game, focusing on encirclement of the adversary, not frontal assault.

“Secretary Clinton and I will continue this engagement in the ARF (Asean Regional Forum) meeting later this week,” Krishna promised.

On Saturday, Hillary Clinton was in Ankara, reportedly urging its leaders to get involved in an Israeli-Syrian reconciliation.

But in Greece the following day she was praising Athens for not letting a peace flotilla sail to Gaza. Turkey is involved in Libya,
where the Chinese have opposed Nato bombings, so is Greece. Turkey also holds the key to an alternative route to Afghanistan should Pakistan become unwieldy.

However, the US secretary of state was at her ironical best in Athens, where she assured Greek Foreign Minister Stavros Lambrinidis that America supported his country’s efforts to tide over the economic crisis.

Going by the logic of common economics, crisis-stricken countries like Greece need Chinese funds more than they need words of sympathy from cash-strapped allies. In this regard the attitude of Europe to the Chinese has evolved as the opposite of a
phobia with which America today regards Beijing.

“In Europe, the red carpet. In America, a red mist”, was how The Economist saw Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s tour of European capitals earlier this month. The tour “underlined the stark transatlantic difference in response to China’s economic clout”.

The analysis quoted a report by the Asia Society in Washington which says that scaremongering about China could lead America to forfeit a share of $1tr worth of outward Chinese direct investment by 2020. The vaudeville is fraught with irony.

Greece goes cap in hand to euro-zone for a bailout and euro-zone, including Europe’s stronger economies, reveal a political bias — to promote investments from China, not deter it. It must be a piquant moment for any American secretary of state to advise an ally on where to go for cash.

To keep the China narrative clear and distinct during her Asean-related trip to Indonesia, Clinton will host the fourth Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) ministerial meeting with the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. She will also hold a trilateral meeting with Japan and South Korea. In Hong Kong she will speak on the cherished values of the American political economy, indicating an emphasis on human rights. She will end the lengthy trip by meeting Chinese state councillor Dai Bingguo in Shenzhen on Monday.

Dai is one of the most liberal interlocutors Clinton could encounter in today’s China. However, that may not be a consideration for a Democratic administration scouting for alibis and populist issues that would help clinch it a second term in office.

As for India, China has resorted to spiritual action to pre-empt the anticipated ill effects of Delhi’s dizzying if puzzling ambitions in the Pacific. The Chinese are speedily fabricating idols of Ganesha, the Hindu god of good omen. The idols are increasingly adorning Indian households, ostensibly to foil the evil eye, quite possibly on both sides. As for the soup, ask any Indian about a certain sweet-corn broth.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.