Monthly Archives: January 2010

By Daniel Dombey, US Diplomatic Correspondent

A large part of covering modern ministerial visits consists of spending long hours in confined spaces in the middle of very big countries. This blog has been written in the darkened interior of the last car in Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ convoy, parked in the midst of Sir Edwin Lutyens spectacular government complex in Delhi.  Monkeys clamber on the rooftops of the buildings here and pigeons fly through the corridors. It is a very grand place – and it is unlike almost anywhere else the US has to deal with.

That’s partly the lesson of this trip – the US is keen for its ties with India to develop further and faster than Delhi is comfortable with. Though the relationship has come on in leaps and bounds, India has yet to sign three technological agreements that have been on the table since as far back as at least 2002. The deals would enable more cooperation between the two countries’ militaries and – hardly the least important detail – would also make US military hardware more attractive to Delhi by bundling it with fancier software. That way, aircraft sold by the US to India could include state of the art navigation and targeting systems.
But India, which is well aware of its status as a rising great power, is reluctant to do anything that would group it together with  mere US allies 

Gideon Rachman

I have just spent a couple of days at the German Marshall’s Fund of the United States’s “China Forum” – which oddly enough is always held in Sweden. That is a nice international combination for you. I love Stockholm, but it is perhaps not at its most charming at this time of the year. Together with the various Chinese, American and European participants, I spent a fair amount of time looking out of the window at the snow and the ice floes floating in the harbour.

It was a fascinating time to be discussing relations between China and the West. There is a lot going on. (See my column this week, just below). And one of the events whose significance people are still trying to decipher is the Copenhagen climate summit of last month.

There was lots of interesting corridor gossip about what happened at the final climactic meeting. Everybody agreed that Barack Obama had walked into a meeting convened by the Chinese, with the Brazilians, South Africans and Indians. Some said Obama had gatecrashed deliberately. Others that he had simply arrived on time for a 7pm bilateral with the Chinese Pm, Wen Jiabao, and entered the room on that basis. The most detailed version of what happened next that I heard, goes as follows. 

Daniel Dombey

By Daniel Dombey, US Diplomatic Correspondent

Another thing that strikes me about Bob Gates’ trip to India is the strategic vagueness of it all. In the map of the 21st century world, the US sees India as an indispensable partner, even if the country’s size, prospects and independent-mindedness means it will never become a full ally.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both paid extended visits to the country, a courtship that ultimately produced a civil nuclear deal between Washington and Delhi and – this is where Gates comes in – plans to intensify military co-operation.

The next big goal seems elusive, even though the US wants to encourage Delhi to become more of a counterweight to China and is keen in the extreme for India and Pakistan to cool mutual tensions (so allowing Islamabad to focus more on battling the Taliban than on its powerful neighbour). 

Daniel Dombey

By Daniel Dombey, US Diplomatic Correspondent

I am travelling with the US defence secretary Robert Gates and a clutch of itinerant journalists to India and there’s a certain dowdy potency about the whole experience.

Gates, a CIA and White House veteran who has served some seven presidents, is a very big fish in Washington and well beyond.

His record of working for President George W. Bush – during which time he presided over the successful surge in Iraq- has given him massive clout in the Obama administration, and his support for sending 30,000 more troops may well have been decisive in the recent debate over Afghanistan.

But Gates himself is a low-key guy, who slipped into jeans as soon as he was on board the airplane and who rates his own common sense approach to problems more than any more flashy qualities. 

Gideon Rachman

Google’s clash with China is about much more than the fate of a single, powerful firm. The company’s decision to pull out of China, unless the government there changes its policies on censorship, is a harbinger of increasingly stormy relations between the US and China.

The reason that the Google case is so significant is because it suggests that the assumptions on which US policy to China have been based since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 could be plain wrong. The US has accepted – even welcomed – China’s emergence as a giant economic power because American policymakers convinced themselves that economic opening would lead to political liberalisation in China. 

Gideon Rachman

In California they are debating whether gays should be allowed to marry; in Uganda they are debating whether gays should be allowed to live. Meanwhile, in China they have just banned the country’s first ever gay pageant - which had been hoping to select a Chinese contestant for the Mr Gay competition in Norway next month.

The campaign for gay rights is now a global movement – but it is making progress at very different rates in different parts of the world. Homosexuality was illegal in China until 1997 and was defined as a mental illness until 2001. Meanwhile, there seems to be a pretty vicious backlash against gays in parts of Africa. Uganda is one example; Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is another. 

Gideon Rachman

The normal tools of political and economic analysis seem somehow irrelevant – or even distasteful – in the face of a calamity like the Haitian earthquake. Thousands of people have died; thousands more are destitute or trapped under rubble. After reporting these ghastly facts, is there anything more to say?

Of course, the mechanics of the international rescue effort need to be reported. One assumes the US will take the lead. But it was interesting that one of the first planes to land in Port-Au-Prince was from China Air – and that even poor old Iceland is sending assistance. I guess the Haitian earthquake puts even their problems into perspective. 

Gideon Rachman

The reports from Beijing of signs of popular Chinese sympathy with Google’s threat to pull out of the country, in protest at censorship, are fascinating. I wonder whether those photos of wreaths being laid outside Google headquarters in Beijing, could one day be as famous as the statue of liberty photos, taken in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Ironically, perhaps the best way of monitoring Chinese reaction to the Google story is on the internet itself – which has become the main forum for a snapshot of relatively uncensored Chinese opinion. Those who reckon that the Chinese people are even more nationalistic than the government often cite the rabid tone of much popular internet commentary on issues like Taiwan and Tibet. So what is a Chinese nationalist to do – torn between a love of the internet and a love of his native country? 

Gideon Rachman

Pinn illustration

In Winnie-the-Pooh, there is a significant moment when the bear is asked whether he wants honey or condensed milk with his bread. He replies “both”. You can get away with this sort of thing if you are a much loved character in children’s literature. But it is more problematic when great nations start behaving in a childish fashion. When Americans are asked what they want – lower taxes, more lavish social spending or the world’s best-funded military machine – their collective answer tends to be “all of the above”. 

Gideon Rachman

Game Change, a new book on the last US presidential election, is causing waves. It is not published until tomorrow, but excerpts and edited highlights are appearing all over the place.

The authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann have done a very effective and entertaining job of dishing the dirt. As far as I can see, just about the only major figure who comes out with any credit is Barack Obama himself. Hillary Clinton is portrayed as scheming to get stories about Obama and drugs into the media , as foul-mouthed – and as stunned and paralysed in a most unpresidential fashion, afer her defeat in Iowa. Sarah Palin comes across as even more of a moron than you might have thought. John McCain’s campaign worried that both the candidate and his wife could be having affairs. Bill Clinton was definitely having an affair – and is self-pitying and hysterical into the bargain. Perhaps the most tawdry episode of all is the story of John Edwards’s affair (yes, they’re all at it), which is re-told in this long excerpt. As you might expect, Edwards come across a narcissistic and ego-maniacal. What is more unexpected is that his wife, Elizabeth, also comes in for a pasting. It takes a certain twisted courage to take a “wronged woman” and cancer victim and to portray her as a monster.