Originally Published 2011-01-07 00:00:00 Published on Jan 07, 2011
India ended 2010 with a flurry of diplomatic activities highlighted by the visits of leaders from all the P-5 countries in the last two months. But, unlike the other four, the visit by the Chinese Premier came in the background of strained relations over a year created by
Wen Jiabao's Visit - a damage control exercise?
India ended 2010 with a flurry of diplomatic activities highlighted by the visits of leaders from all the P-5 countries in the last two months. But, unlike the other four, the visit by the Chinese Premier came in the background of strained relations over a year created by various irritants from the Chinese side on sensitive issues. Under these circumstances, what can be an objective assessment of the visit?

The timing of the visit itself raised many questions. It was said that Wen had invited himself to India. A high level visit from China had been envisaged by the end of the year for the closing ceremony of the China Festival in India. It appears that Xi Jinping, the Politburo Standing Committee member who is expected to take over from Hu Jintao in 2012 was to undertake the visit. But at the G-20 Summit, Wen expressed his desire to visit India to PM Manmohan Singh.

Low expectations

 Expectations were rather low on both sides. The Chinese did not envisage a visit on the scale of previous ones like those of Jiang Zemin in1993, Wen in 2005 or Hu Jintao in 2006. Many analysts see the visit as a damage control exercise after the significant deterioration in the bilateral relations. Also to be noted is the fact that Wen was visiting India in the backdrop of a weakening of his own position in the Chinese establishment after criticisms of his approach on political reforms. The main Chinese objectives for the visit were evidently economic and commercial.

On the Indian side, there were many issues to be taken up—Stapled visas for Indians from J&K, China’s aggressive pronouncements on Arunachal Pradesh, Chinese activities in POK, China- Pak nuclear cooperation and diversion of Brahmaputra waters. The seriousness of the issues not-withstanding, GOI must have been aware that an immediate solution to the problems was not possible during the visit. It is a time of power transition in China and nothing much was expected from the visit on critical issues.

However, the visit actually turned out to be rather useful. India, probably for the first time, articulated its “core interests” forcefully. The first indication of this was given by EAM S.M. Krishna earlier during his talks with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the RIC meeting, when he said that J&K was to India what Taiwan and Tibet were to China and that both sides should be sensitive to each other’s core interests. This sentiment has come out effectively in the Joint Communique which talks of “mutual respect and sensitivity for each other’s concerns and aspirations.”

Much has been written about the fact that, unlike in the past, the Joint Communique does not refer to the “one- China policy” or to Taiwan and Tibet being integral parts of China. Wen’s delegation can take satisfaction from the fact that the Communique refers to “the two sides’ commitment to the principles in the previous Declarations of 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008.” Nonetheless, India did well to give a clear message.

Another message given almost on the eve of the visit was India’s decision not to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo where the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was given the award in absentia.

On the question of stapled visas, it is significant that the issue was raised by Wen himself. He was of the view that the issue would be appropriately resolved through meetings at official levels. Here again the Indian position was brought out clearly by Foreign Secretary when she clarified to the Media later that the ball was in the Chinese court, implying  that “ one who stapled the visa should unstaple it.”A resolution of the problem during the visit was unrealistic as it would have amounted to a loss of face for China. One can expect a gradual moderation in the Chinese stand without any publicity. There was a news item earlier that a folk singer from J&K was given a normal visa to participate in the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Guanzhou.

On the boundary issue, Wen had to contradict himself during the visit. While the Joint Communique talks of resolving the question at an early date, in his address at the ICWA, he said that it “would not be easy to completely resolve the issue and that it would take a long time.” This raises questions on how serious the Chinese are in addressing the issue. Perhaps, India should also not show anxiety and not push matters, but leave the issue to be resolved by time.

It was on the question of Pakistan’s role in cross- border terror and the 26/11 tragedy that there was maximum disappointment. Wen did not express sympathy for the families of the victims. He was also not forthcoming on bringing the perpetrators of the attack to justice. While one understands the client-state relationship that Pakistan has with China and the latter’s desire to please its all-weather friend, Wen could have been a little more sensitive and nuanced on the issue.

On the other hand, one must note that because of its recent acts and utterances, China is left with just two friends on its eastern and southern peripheries—North Korea and Pakistan. China needs Pakistan for access to the Gulf and West Asia and the Western world in general. This could become an “all-weather” constraint in the development of Sino-Indian friendship.

As expected, there was no forward movement on Chinese support for India’s candidature for a Permanent seat in UNSC. India should stop soliciting for support for this cause. At any rate, Chinese formulation about its “understanding of India’s desire” etc. is annoyingly patronizing and further Communiques should leave it out. It is obvious that China is not interested in an early expansion of the Security Council where India and Japan could be members. In any case, whenever the proposal attains traction at the UN, if we can have the support of the other four P-5 members and 2/3s of the General Assembly, China will find it difficult to oppose our candidature.

Focus on Trade

Trade was the main focus of the visit. A 300- member business delegation accompanying Wen generated contracts worth $ 16 billion. Both sides agreed to increase the bilateral trade to $ 100 billion by 2015. But the huge adverse trade deficit of $ 19.2 billion was a matter of concern for India. Wen agreed that such a deficit is not sustainable and promised to address the issue in a serious way. Problems in this area that have to be tackled include better access to the Chinese market for Indian products like pharmaceuticals, agricultural commodities and meat and greater openings for IT companies to work for Chinese enterprises. Also, instead of selling iron ore to China, would it not be better to ask China to invest in steel plants in India and export the finished products?

The need to increase Chinese investments in India was also taken up by the Indian side. Significantly, Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant announced on the eve of the visit plans to invest $2 billion in 5 years in a new R&D complex in Bangalore and a manufacturing unit in Chennai.

On the Chinese push for a Free Trade Agreement, India had to reject the proposal. Given India’s uncompetitive manufacturing sector, it would have been a disaster to agree to such an arrangement, at least for the time being.

A course correction in China’s assertiveness?

What is the net effect of the visit on India-China relations? Here, two points made recently by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao at a Seminar in ORF are relevant: (1) the leadership of both countries understands the untenability of any sustained estrangement, and (2) the view that India and China are rivals is an over-generalisation of a very complex relationship. Within these two parameters, India will have to incrementally build on the forceful articulation of our concerns made during the visit.

Present indications suggest that China will gradually moderate its aggressive postures not only towards India but also others in East Asia and ASEAN. Their recent policies in the region have in no way enhanced their position . Foreign Policy in China seems to have been hijacked by various interest groups and ultra-nationalist elements. The clout of the Foreign Ministry appears to be at an all time low. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is not even in the 25- member Politburo, let alone the all powerful 9-member Standing Committee of the Politburo.

According to many analysts, there is a serious divergence of views among the Chinese leadership as a build-up to the change of guard in 2012.There seem to be two schools of thought-- One, who could be called moderates or staus-quoists argue that China stands to gain from the present International Order and should wait longer before pushing for the so- called “core interests.” The other, who are hardliners argue that with the US power on the decline due to their involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis, now is the time to make an aggressive bid--at least in the region-- to attain a higher level of dominance. For the last two years, the latter seemed to carry the day. However, the Chinese leadership has seen the negative consequences of such an aggressive policy which, far from diminishing the US role in the region, has actually increased it. A course correction from the Chinese side can be expected. One indication of this is the forthcoming visit of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates ending a freeze on high-level defence contacts imposed in January, 2010 after US arms sales to Taiwan.

China would also be closely watching the increasing international profile of India and its successful diplomacy in the recent past. This factor may also have an influence on China in bringing the bilateral relations to a calmer and more cooperative level.

Ambassador Vishwanathan is Distinguished Fellow, ORF

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