Sino-US relations

China, too, can play the containment game

Richard Halloran says China's growing footprint in America's own backyard won't go unnoticed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 10:03pm

When Xi Jinping sat down with Barack Obama in a luxurious estate on the edge of the California desert over the weekend, the Chinese president delivered a subtle message to his American host: China can play the containment game just as well as the US.

Xi was fresh from a jaunt through Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico. He tested the doctrine proclaimed by president James Monroe in 1823, in which the US insisted that outsiders stay out of the Americas.

The high point: in Mexico City, Xi and President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico agreed that their governments would forge a "comprehensive strategic partnership". They agreed that China would build a cultural centre in the Mexican capital and Mexico would do the same in Beijing. Such Chinese centres have been bases for political action and intelligence elsewhere.

The Chinese, who have complained loudly about the projection of American power into the seas and nations around China, thus sought to prove they could operate in the backyard of the US.

Beijing was also seeking to undercut Taiwan, which has diplomatic relations with a dozen Caribbean and Central American nations. And Xi was asserting China's role as a leader in the economically emerging third world.

Reinforcing that message, the Nicaraguan government announced last week that it had awarded a contract to a Chinese company to build a large canal that would compete with the Panama Canal further south.

Lastly, confirmed reports said Chinese warships and submarines have occasionally sailed through US exclusive economic zones around Guam and Hawaii, a practice permitted under international agreements but to which the Chinese have objected vigorously when US Navy ships have sailed through the Chinese zones.

As for the summit meeting in California, finding out what happened depended on whose briefing transcript you read.

Cyberhacking was one issue that evidently got well worked over. So was the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea. But when the political fluff and the diplomatic niceties were brushed aside, most of the conversations appeared to be a reiteration of previously assumed positions.

Thus, the fate of Taiwan, and US arms sales to the government there, remained a contentious issue. So did Chinese claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea and its clash with Japan over the Diaoyus.

Perhaps inadvertently, the locale selected for the summit turned out to be a fitting choice. The posh estate where the two presidents met is just outside the town of Rancho Mirage.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington