Event ReportsPublished on Nov 21, 2013
Taking part in an interaction on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent visit to China, Mr. Gautam Bambawale, Joint Secretary (East Asia), Ministry of External Affairs, emphasised that India was not in a game of "catching up" with China vis-a-vis its relationship with other East Asian countries.
India not in the game of catching up with China: Senior Govt official

Observer Research Foundation organised a talk on the Indian Prime Minister’s two-day visit to China in November by Mr. Gautam Bambawale, Joint Secretary (East Asia), Ministry of External Affairs, on November 21, 2013. The talk was moderated by Mr. Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

The Joint Secretary - one of the principal negotiators during this visit flagged off the discussions by noting that this was the first time since 1954 that there were bilateral visits by the leaders of both countries within such a short of time i.e. five months and the historical importance of the visits must be appreciated. The Indian Prime Minister was extremely well received in Beijing with the Chinese leadership escorting him on a walk through the Forbidden City. The protocols and courtesies extended to the Indian delegation were described as "top class". The discussions were described as "frank and tempered" on all issues including the difficult ones. It was also stated that there was a conscious effort to ensure that all the information on the discussions as far as possible were available in the public domain for a better understanding of the issues by diplomats, researchers, media and the layman interested in the evolving nature of the India-China relationship. The Joint Secretary noted that the key challenge is to keep the relationship between India and China stable and predictable inspite of it being a complex one involving international issues, economic issues and regional issues and by this yardstick, the visits were successful in meeting the stated objectives.

Security issues

The principal agreement signed between India and China was The Border Defence Co-operation Agreement (B.D.C.A.) - the latest addition to the detailed infrastructure to ensure peace and tranquillity on the India-China border through increased co-operation, interactions and exchanges between the troops on the ground as well as the commanders including those based in Delhi and Beijing. The previous agreements in this security architecture include the ones signed in 1993, 1996 and the Protocol in 2005. It was specifically stated that the B.D.C.A. places no restrictions on troop strength and border infrastructure for both India and China. It was the PLA which had reached out to India on the need for an agreement on border issues and not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China - a gesture which was appreciated and grabbed with both hands by India. It is also necessary to remember that the B.D.C.A. is not a magic wand which will resolve all border issues but is a significant contribution to ensure that peace and tranquillity is maintained on the border. Officials from the Indian military were a part of the delegation which negotiated the B.D.C.A. Discussions were also held on the necessity of establishing a hotline between the armies on both sides of the border similar to the one that exists between the DGMO’s (Director-General of Military Operations) of India and Pakistan which has been reasonably successful in maintaining peace and tranquillity on the border. Owing to a practical difficulty of the Chinese military not having the position of an official DGMO, such an agreement could not be negotiated conclusively during the P.M.’s visit, but the Indian delegation will definitely work towards establishing this mechanism in the near future. Issues like mountain strike corps and modernization of the Chinese military were discussed candidly at different levels including the top leadership. On the question of tailing of troops by either side, it was held that in some areas where the LAC is not clear, there is an agreement between troops of both sides of not engaging in the act of tailing troops. Censors and helicopters are being used to ensure that if there have been any violations by the troops, it is detected promptly and the troops return to their respective positions. There was also an agreement to mark the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel agreement in 2014, but a reading of it by some Chinese analysts as Panchsheel 2.0 was categorically denied. On the issue of cross-border smuggling of arms and wildlife, it was stated that there was an agreement between the military establishments of both countries to ensure that such incidents do not recur in the future. With regard to the exchange programs at the military academies of both countries, it was stated that very officials could avail of these programs since the Chinese language posed a barrier for officers of the Indian military and vice-versa. Joint military exercises between the two countries are also being conducted, the most recent one being in the Military Area Command of Chengdu in China involving top-grade troops from both sides which has led to greater co-operation, goodwill and respect between Indian and Chinese troops. On the question of stapled visas being issued to Indian citizens based in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, no visa agreement was signed between the two countries but nonetheless India remains hopeful of an expeditious and pragmatic solution to the issue. The necessity of expanding India’s footprint in Central Asia on issues of both hard power and soft power was also emphasized. Strategic doctrines like containment, string of pearls as well as contemporary international issues like the situation in the Korean Peninsula and the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan were touched upon in a series of meetings between members of the respective delegations including at the leadership level.

Economic Issues

An MOU was signed between the two countries on establishing power equipment service centres. Power equipment is purchased from China especially the new power generating equipments but since there are no servicing facilities in India currently, the work tends to get delayed if the power equipments face any technical glitches even of a minor nature. Establishing the servicing centres will ensure immediate servicing of power equipments.

Another important MOU was an agreement on strengthening co-operation on the transborder rivers. This is especially important for India since it is the lower riparian for most of the rivers including the Brahmaputra. India has been closely following the events in the upper regions of the Brahmaputra in Tibet. This agreement will give India an opening albeit a narrow one to engage with their Chinese counterparts to build the necessary confidence to exchange information (e.g. hydrographic data) on transborder rivers (both the upper and lower regions) as well as discussions on the mainstream Brahmaputra and place them in the public domain thereby generating more public confidence on this issue. It was clarified that a fruitful discussion on transborder rivers was not related to resolution of the border disputes.

There have been a couple of meetings between a delegation of CEOs from two countries on the need to engage in innovative thinking on economic issues and is likely to bear fruit in the near future. Responding to a question on business opportunities in China during the Q&A sessions, the Joint Secretary noted that inspite of the growing size of the Chinese market, Indian business have not explored the Chinese market. The Tatas, especially TCS are the only exceptions who have done reasonably well in China. One of the reasons for the inability to engage intensively with the Chinese market was the necessity of investing more time and money as well as adaptability to Chinese conditions. If Indian businessmen are able to beat the odds, the results can indeed be rewarding. The Indian and Chinese governments can only provide an enabling environment for deeper business ties between the two countries but only pro-active action by Indian and Chinese corporations can build more intensive engagement e.g. Indian corporations could share its experiences in the I.T. sector with their Chinese counterparts.

BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Economic Corridor and the connection between Kolkata and Kunming is another key area of co-operation between the two countries. Discussions have been conducted both at the government level and Track 2 level. A car rally organized in February 2013 between Kolkata and Kurming inspite of the difficult terrain was received enthusiastically by all the countries. The biggest beneficiary of this project will be India’s North-Eastern states especially Manipur and Assam since infrastructural developments involving expansion of the road network and building better roads in India’s North-East will be the primary objective.

The total volume of trade between India and China had fallen in the last two years but the trade deficit for India has risen. The decrease in overall trade was owing to depressed economic conditions across the globe and the fall in the exports of iron ore to China due to judicial restraints. To bridge the trade gap, the possibility of setting up a Chinese Industrial Zone/ Chinese Industrial Park in India is also being mooted to enhance Chinese investments in India. It was also clarified that India’s interests in the South China Sea were purely commercial in nature and emphasized that India was a neutral party to the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.

People to people interactions

The two countries also agreed to establish sister-city relations between Delhi-Beijing, Bengaluru-Chengdu and Kolkata-Kunming to foster people to people ties. The objective is to promote people to people linkages between India and China through closer engagements in the fields of public policy, education, health, science and technology as well as tourism and culture. The need to teach Mandarin in schools and colleges as a foreign language and the necessity of trained faculty to do the same was also highlighted. Another area of concern was the issue of sportspersons from the state of Arunachal Pradesh being denied visas to China for participating in sporting events. Increasingly, more international sporting events are being hosted in China and the necessity to find a workable solution in the near future was also emphasized. Buddhism which has been India’s biggest export to China over the years and its tremendous potential to highlight India’s soft power was also noted. India’s effort to re-establish Nalanda University and its advocacy of the same through the East Asia Summit as well as China’s backing of the same was also underlined.

The Joint Secretary emphasised that India was not in a game of "catching up" with China vis-a-vis its relationship with other East Asian countries. With the general elections in India scheduled for May 2014, it was assured that irrespective of a change in government, the Indian Prime Minister had succeeded in ensuring that the relationship between two countries would remain "stable and predictable" in the post 2014 scenario.

(This report is prepared by Samya Chatterjee, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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