- May 24 2016
On Tuesday morning, President Pranab Mukherjee leaves for a four-day visit to China, the first by a President since 2010.
At one level, the visit is a protocol response to that of President Xi Jinping to India in 2014. At another, it seeks to convey the intention of the two countries to maintain the tempo of high-level visits to each other’s countries.
In 2014, Vice-President Ansari also visited China, and in 2015, the Chinese Vice-President Liu Yuanchao came to India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to China.
Later this year, Modi will visit Hangzhou for the G-20 summit and Xi will come to Goa for the BRICS meet.
The President of India is a largely ceremonially figure who must by law conduct himself at the advice of the government of the day. So, he is unlikely to undertake any negotiation or initiative on his own. But, as a seasoned politician, the President is not just an elder statesman, but an experienced hand in government who is fully cognisant of the issues of the Sino-Indian relations.
In line with this, the government is using his visit to convey to Beijing that notwithstanding recent glitches relating to the Uighur visas, the Masood Azhar controversy, and the NSG contretemps, India attaches great importance to its relations with China and seeks a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship at all times.
The President will be prepared to take up a range of subjects with Beijing, but he will also wait for cues from the other side before taking up some of the issues. In other words, he will not want to put across that India is defensive about some policy measures, even while being ready to discuss any concerns the hosts may have.
Another aspect of the visit will be to enhance the Sino-Indian business relationship — and to this end, in Guangzhou, Pranab will meet with Indian and Chinese business leaders and reinforce India’s commitment to better trade and investment relations with China.
His message will be that India is open for business and warmly welcomes Chinese investment in all sectors of our economy, where it will find a level playing field.
At a more practical level, in his talks with Premier Li Keqiang he will, no doubt, raise the important issue of righting the current imbalance of trade in favour of Chinese exports to India which is hurtful for the overall relationship.
At the strategic level, he is expected to put across India’s policy perspectives, in particular its relationships with the US and Japan. India, he will convey, has no intention of being part of any “containment” of China.
On the South China Sea, India does not take sides, it stands for the freedom of navigation and the right of overflight, and believes in the peaceful settlement of disputes.
India would like to cooperate with China on all aspects of counter-terrorism and expects action on issues like the naming of Masood Azhar by the UN sanctions committee.
India wants Chinese support for its membership of the NSG without being being bracketed with Pakistan.
India would like to work together with China on Afghanistan, but would like greater clarity on Beijing’s policy.
Beyond the visit, lies New Delhi’s efforts to find an equilibrium in its relations with China. Recent events have revealed a strange gaucheness. The decision to invite a cross-section of Chinese dissidents, Uighur nationalists and Falung Gong members for an aborted event at Dharamsala, the abode of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, seemed aimed at poking Beijing in the eye.
So was the decision (now rescinded) to send two representatives for the inaugural of Tsai Ing-Wen, the new President of Taiwan.
China has not been very comfortable with the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean that India has declared with the US. While it made its unhapiness known to the US, India, Australia and Japan over quadrilateral naval exercises iin 2007, it has not protested the Malabar trilateral exercises that India, US and Japan conduct.
In fact even as the President is in China, Indian naval ships will be in a two-and-a-half-month deployment in the South China Sea and the North West Pacific.
They will make several port calls and participate in the latest iteration of the Malabar Exercise off Okinawa. India’s desire to get even with China is understandable. Beijing has used Pakistan for the offshore balancing of India and broken some of the greatest taboos of the international system by supplying nuclear weapons and missile designs and materials.
In the name of non-interference in other’s politics, China has given cover to Pakistan to abandon the state sponsorship of terrorism.
India fears that in the next phase China will supply ballistic and cruise missile capable submarines to Islamabad.
India by itself lacks the military and economic muscle to deal with China, hence its outreach to Washington and Tokyo. But both these countries have a many-layered and denser relationship with China than we have. So there is need to exercise a degree of caution.
This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.