NEW DELHI – On her recent trip to China, Bangladesh, and India, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was eager to trumpet America’s “New Silk Road” strategy, which she unveiled last September. But the Silk Road was a trade route, whereas knife-edge diplomacy dominated Clinton’s Asian tour.
Nothing about Clinton’s trip was as path-breaking as her visit earlier this spring to Myanmar, where she met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein to lend her support to their delicate political dance, which may yet bring the country into the global democratic fold. Her trip opened with the always-tense annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which was threatened at the start by the plight of the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who had taken refuge in the United States’ embassy in Beijing.
But Chen was not the only one to upstage Clinton; her boss, President Barack Obama, did so as well, landing at midnight in Kabul, where he executed a strategic pact with Afghanistan, flying back to the US before dawn. Was this – a negotiation without her participation – the defining event of Clinton’s Asian fortnight?
Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, describes the pact as “providing a strong foundation for the security of Afghanistan, (and) a document for the development of the region.” But, while the new pact does clarify America’s post-2014 posture toward Afghanistan, and to some extent has assuaged India’s concerns about that troubled land’s future, anxiety in Pakistan has only deepened. Only time will tell whether the pact boosts stability in the region.
Twice upstaged, Clinton’s discussions with China’s leaders took place under the shadow not only of the Chen affair, but also of the recent purge of Bo Xilai from the Communist Party’s senior leadership. Bo’s ouster, the source of the greatest intra-Party ruckus since the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, is the sort of dirty linen that China’s leaders never air in public. So, instead, they “ripped into” the US delegation, in the words of a senior American official, over the Chen affair.
At first, with Chen in the US embassy, the Chinese began to suggest canceling the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, scheduled to begin with the arrival of Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. The Americans also appeared willing to walk away. In the end, both sides blinked: the Americans accepted a deal for Chen to leave the embassy that could not be enforced, and the Chinese ultimately agreed to allow Chen to go to the US to study, just like many thousands of other Chinese do nowadays.
The China leg of Clinton’s Asia tour was salvaged – so much so that, at the end of her stay in Beijing, she indulged in the type of diplomatic hyperbole that few would have expected three days earlier: “Our countries are thoroughly, inescapably interdependent,” she said, adding that “a thriving China is good for America…” That may or may not be true; but both countries seem to have reached the conclusion that no human-rights dispute is worth sabotaging the entire bilateral relationship.
So it was on to Bangladesh for Clinton. But here the American propensity for gratuitous preaching led to unnecessary strain in her talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government. This time, the issue was Hasina’s treatment of the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, the microcredit pioneer and founder of the Grameen Bank. Unlike the testy Chinese, Hasina’s spokesperson offered only a gentle rejoinder, rejecting Clinton’s suggestions about alleged mistreatment of Yunus.
From Dhaka, Clinton made the short journey to India’s West Bengal, where her host was the diminutive Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose election ended 34 years of Communist rule in the state. Assurances of US investment in Bengal’s development flowed; whether funds will actually follow remains to be seen.
Then it was on to India’s capital, New Delhi, for what many took to be Clinton’s farewell visit (assuming, that is, that she steps down at the end of this year as planned) – a visit marred by awkward coincidences and untidy scheduling. Even as Clinton was cautioning Indian officials about contacts with Iran (demanding, in particular, a reduction in imports of Iranian oil), India was hosting a high-level Iranian trade mission aimed at boosting bilateral economic ties.
Finally, Clinton, speaking from Delhi, warned Pakistan not to allow its territory to be used as a “launching pad” by terrorist groups, asserting that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was hiding in the country. True to form, Pakistani officials were outraged at the charge, which they promptly refuted with roughly the same vehemence with which they once denied Osama Bin Laden’s presence. The US responded by announcing that its drone attacks on Pakistan’s North Waziristan region will continue.
Was this the long-awaited signal that the US was about to squeeze Pakistan on the issue of terrorism? With the US blueprint for its withdrawal from Afghanistan completed by Obama earlier on Clinton’s journey, one might think so. In any case, Clinton’s tour appears to confirm the central fact of US diplomacy nowadays: the Asia pivot is complete. The region is now America’s top foreign-policy priority.