CURRENT ISSUE JUNE 30, 2003
COVER: CHINA DIPLOMACY
As per the Chinese scheme of things, a state visit merits a meeting with three top-rung leaders of the country's political pantheon. And with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's June 22-27 visit to China pegged as "official", India had reason to hope it wouldn't fall short of the established norm. So the feeling was a little short of elation in the Indian ranks when China disclosed that its top five leaders-Premier Wen Jiabao, Chairman of the Central Military Commission Jiang Zemin, President Hu Jintao, National People's Congress' Wu Bangguo and Vice-President Zeng Qinghong-would line up to meet the Indian prime minister.
Though this will be the first visit to China by an Indian prime minister in a decade, the message from Beijing was clear: it wanted to engage India big time. China watchers agree that the substance of its relationship with other nations is determined by the number of high-level visits it packs.
India too has been forthcoming on the issue, with the Government disregarding the SARS threat. And when Union Defence Minister George Fernandes visited Beijing last month, he carried a transcript of his (in)famous 1998 interview to explain to the Chinese (if they ever asked) that he had never described the country as "Enemy No. 1". As Chinese Ambassador to India Hua Junduo observed, "Both sides have arrived on a consensus on two major issues. The two sides should in no way allow their historic baggage to stand in the way of the all-round development of relations, and neither country should see the other as a threat."
For India, the visit will complete the crucial cycle of engagement that it embarked on after the 1998 nuclear tests. China was the last major country requiring a "closure" of the bitterness that accompanied the reaction to the tests. It is equally crucial for Delhi to be granted the "respect" due to a nuclear power and the visit is an indication that China has swallowed this new reality.
Though SARS has slowed the progress, a rash of agreements is expected to be signed by both the sides. More importantly, it will be a recognition by China that India is not merely the dominant power in South Asia but also crucial for the overall stability of South-East and Central Asia. Implicit is an acknowledgement of India's growing power that is no longer easily "controlled" by Pakistan. The changed vision was evident with Hua expanding on the new roles: "China and India share enormous interests in maintaining regional and global stability, safeguarding national independence and developing their economies."
Besides, China has keenly observed how India has rebuilt its relations with major world powers after the nuclear tests and this is expected to influence its ties with India. C.V. Ranganathan, convener, National Security Advisory Board, believes "this is a promising visit, giving Indian and Chinese leaders an opportunity to expand the agenda of cooperation in a rapidly changing world".
The visit, however, is not expected to yield many tangible results. India is interested in speeding up the clarification on the Line of Actual Control, an indication that it wants to move beyond the border dispute. Though maps have been exchanged on the middle sector China, however, is playing hard to get on the western sector. The issue will receive political "push" this week, but Indian negotiators complain that China shows no flexibility which slows things.
A much easier issue for China would be to recognise Sikkim as an integral part of India, reversing its 1975 decision, but indications are that it will hold back on this as well. "The Chinese position on Sikkim and on India's candidature to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council sows doubts," says External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha. According to government sources, though the issue is not related to the border question, Chinese intransigence might prove counter-productive. "People who calculate too much run the risk of miscalculation," says a senior official.
On a micro-level, Vajpayee's visit will be the first by a non-Congress leader-all of China's agreements with India have been with Congress governments. China knows he is not only completing a full term but has a fair chance of returning to power in the next elections. For India, it is an opportunity to engage the new Chinese leadership; in the past three years, virtually the entire standing committee of the previous politburo has visited India. It is a more confident India that China will be dealing with. As Sinha says, "India's policies will not be based on fear of Chinese power, nor envy of its achievements. They will be based on the conviction that a prosperous India is inevitable. So is a prosperous China."
The steady growth of the Indian economy, especially in the knowledge sector, and the booming bilateral trade has added ballast to the relationship as well as to the Chinese acknowledgement of India's growing status and market. As Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley points out, India's trade with China increased by a stunning 96 per cent last year, no mean feat considering that till only a few years ago India feared its markets would be swamped with Chinese goods.
On the strategic front, India is set to counter China in a more proactive way. So in Myanmar, virtually a satellite state of China, India has been expanding its sphere of influence with assistance projects, strategic roads and the development of gas sector. Besides, India's intensive engagement with Iran, including the development of the Chahbahar port as a potential counter to the China-sponsored Gwadar port in Pakistan, are significant moves in the Asian context. If India sends troops to Iraq, it will impact China's energy security as it gets 60 per cent of its oil from the Gulf.
The thorniest issue in the bilateral ties, however, remains China's links with Pakistan and its active missile proliferation programme, besides, of course, its assistance to North Korea's proliferation activities in Pakistan. The issue is on India's agenda during Vajpayee's visit, but while the civilian leadership may be receptive, the Pakistan card is the PLA's strongest chip to contain India.
Diplomatically, India has found a more secure footing in the world in recent years, especially as China has maintained a low profile. In military terms, India actually stacks up better than China, at least as far as conventional weapons are concerned, an argument used by the PLA to trash India's development of nuclear weapons. In the nuclear field, though China has many more weapons, India's less impressive arsenal is a strong deterrent.
It is not surprising then that in the past few years, China has also worked hard at establishing defence ties with India's neighbours. A security pact with Myanmar in 2001 was followed by a defence agreement with Bangladesh in 2002, even as it deepened its relationship with Pakistan. China has followed an active policy of building military links along the Indian Ocean rim, even with East African nations.
The greatest imperative of the Chinese foreign policy, however, is to maintain good relations with the US as the cornerstones of its foreign policy-stability and economic development-are based on it. India's transformed ties with the US has, therefore, affected the Sino-Indian relations especially after 9/11. For India, it has meant that China's "all-weather" links with Pakistan have frayed slightly, as it is seen to be the hub of terrorism. Consequently, Beijing's stand on Kashmir has crept closer to the western stand.
Moreover, the George W. Bush Administration has combined its engagement with China with a tougher stand on security issues, while Pentagon's favourite idea of developing India as a counterpoise to China would have attracted Beijing's attention. As Singapore's founding father and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew reminded the late Chinese President Deng Xiaoping years ago: "As long as your economy grows faster than India's, India is not a threat." But with India catching up, China can hardly cling to the assurance for much longer.
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