Managing India-China ties

The positions of the two countries remain far apart on many core political issues

Managing India-China ties

I do:  Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his recent India visit.Such expectations may be exaggerated. However, this widely held perception in Asia and the West underlines what has been reiterated on numerous occasions when the premiers of India and China meet on official visits to each other’s countries.

The India-China joint communiqué released on December 16, 2010, at the conclusion of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India states: “India-China relations go beyond their bilateral scope and strategic significance”.

At a basic level, the statement is obvious enough. The two countries, neighbours and civilisation states, containing 40% of the world’s population have outpaced the GDP growth rates of the advanced countries in recent years.

This in itself, where several millions have reached middle-class status, is a phenomenon which has global implications. This is despite the vast size and scale of the challenges which each country faces in spreading distributive equity and achieving environmentally sustainable models of development.

Entitlement & ambition

A look at the map of Asia would show that in a vast arc extending in the West, from the Gulf of Aden to Central Asia, down to the shared neighbourhood in South Asia and extending to South East and East Asia, Indian and Chinese interests intersect.
This is becoming more evident with explicit assertions of entitlement and ambition on the part of the people of both countries following vast increases of their national capabilities.

It is, therefore, a challenge to the leadership, the governments and peoples of both countries that the intersection of their interests is managed in a manner which promotes peace and stability in Asia and is mutually beneficial to India and China.
The asymmetries between India and China in terms of their comparative material and military strength, relative status and international influence have a psychological impact on India’s perceptions of China. However, attention also needs to be focused on the consequences of improving relations between India and major powers and regional groupings in the recent past. These are USA, Russia, Japan, the European Union (specially with its more influential members UK, France and Germany), the Republic of Korea, Nigeria, South Africa and the Association of South Eastern Asian Nations (ASEAN and its individual members) and others.

The diplomatic task for India is to manage each compartment of these growing relations which does not impact adversely on any other compartment. This in turn would reflect an autonomy of decision making and adherence to India’s well known principles in the pursuit of its national interests.

The India-China joint communiqué of December 16 states that, “The two sides believed that as members of the Asian family, stronger neighbourly relations and mutually beneficial cooperation between India and China helped foster a peaceful and stable regional environment that promotes equality, mutual trust and mutual respect”. As applied to our western neighbourhood extending up to Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is essential for the Indian public to see the implementation of the letter and spirit of this statement.

This is necessary for restoration of trust in China’s intentions vis a vis the triangular situation in the India-China-Pakistan relationships. As the most influential friend of Pakistan with whom China has strategic relationship, China has an interest as well as responsibility to contribute to Pakistan’s emergence as a stable entity living in peace with India and no longer posing security threats. It is understandable if the public in India view various Chinese actions such as ambivalence over Pakistan directed terrorism in the Mumbai 26/11 incidents, the issue of stapled visas, project implementation in PoK as moral support to Pakistan in its attitudes towards India.
Such a posture is not in keeping with various declarations and statements that the India-China Strategic and Cooperative Partnerships for Peace and Prosperity is based on the Five Principles of peaceful coexistence, mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns and aspirations. There is a contradiction in the official Chinese position to encourage direct India-Pakistan dialogue to resolve all outstanding issues, including the problem of Jammu and Kashmir on the one hand, while on the other complicating the matter through downgrading the status of a state of India.

The ambiguity regarding India directed terrorism such as the 26/11 incidents also contrast strongly with American and European leaders’ statements when they visited India recently. In the light of this, it is important that India’s concerns about the quality of China’s relations with Pakistan were taken up at the level of the Premiers recently.

The public would no doubt await the outcome of the further official discussions on such questions which was reported as an outcome of Premier Wen’s visit.

India’s Afghan interest

On Afghanistan, India’s sole interest is its re-emergence as a sovereign, independent state with no external interference. A united international commitment to Afghan-led initiatives for peace in that country is essential. Afghanistan is not the exclusive area of operations by any one power or group of powers. India is engaged and would like to continue to be engaged in the reconstruction of Afghanistan in accordance with the requests of the Afghan government. It would be beneficial to both India and China if there is a harmonisation of approach towards Afghanistan.

Moving further afield, both India and China actively participate and support the efforts of the ASEAN for closer economic integration as well as formulating an acceptable architecture for cooperation in East Asia. The East Asian Summit has made a significant beginning to build an open, inclusive and transparent architecture in Asia-Pacific region which would in future also include the USA, Russia in addition to the ASEAN 10, India, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. In the background of recent tensions between China and Japan, the two Koreas and disputed claims over the South China sea, the East Asian Summit can play a very valuable role in trust and confidence building through agreed codes of conduct relating to the vast maritime spaces surrounding the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. India should play a proactive role in contributing towards this. In Central Asia, the association as an observer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation should enable India to join forces with other members of this organisation in focusing on the triple threats posed by religious fundamentalism, secessionism and terrorism in addition to participating in capacity building and other economic and social projects in the Central Asian states.

The 1962 armed conflict between India and China has left lingering traumatic effects in the generation that witnessed this. The yet to be resolved boundary question is often seen as a benchmark of the relationship although both governments have been true to their commitment made in 1988 when Rajiv Gandhi visited China. This was that while seeking a mutually agreeable solution to both sides through negotiations, relations in all fields would be encouraged. This has, indeed, happened. And the relations today comprise many fields - political, economic, cultural and the contacts between the peoples of both countries have increased vastly.

Indeed, in my view the boundary question is an important one, but it is not urgent in the sense that the needed territorial concessions that each side should make for an agreement is difficult to reach. The fact remains that the vast India-China boundary is peaceful and we should have the confidence that the armed forces of our country have improved their capabilities to defend the boundary.

Restoring balance in trade

Conscious of the appreciable increase in bilateral trade and economic relations between India and China, it is also evident that it is unsustainable if India suffers huge trade deficits annually. The Wen visit has resulted in both the government and business leaders in India exchanging views with the Chinese Premier and the large  delegation accompanying him. Certain practical steps have been agreed upon to restore the balance in trade and economic relations and the Indian business circles would no doubt await the outcome if they are to go to China in greater numbers.
It is necessary for wider stakes and vested interests to be built up to propel the forward momentum of India-China relations and for this trade and economic relations play a big role.

To conclude, the India-China relationship is a complex one, including old and new issues. The visit of Premier Wen to India was about managing differences with India while enlarging areas of co-operation. The differences include some of the hard issues mentioned above, but the soft areas of cooperation have been outlined in detail in the India-China joint communiqué of December 16, 2010.

(The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to China.)

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