January 23, 2002


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C V Ranganathan

Sino-Indian relations: a growing maturity

With so much attention being paid to Indo-Pakistan developments since the December 13 attack on Parliament, the visit of the Chinese premier and his weighty delegation of ministers and businessmen is yet another indication of the flux in the international situation.

The visit which was postponed once, came at a time when the contours of international relations post the September 11 terrorist attack in the US may undergo significant shifts in South Asia and Central Asia. The region may see a long term presence of American troops and certainly continuing western interest in tension-free relations between India and Pakistan.

In the face of heightened anxieties following the diplomatic and military pressure which India necessarily had to bring to bear on Pakistan to make it costly for it to indulge in state-sponsored terrorism, the visit would have provided the Chinese leadership an opportunity to understand the compulsions operating in India.

As a neighbour of India and Pakistan, China is understandably concerned, even involved, given its political and military closeness with Pakistan. Ever since the Kargil conflict of 1999, but even before that, China has made political readjustments in its relations with the two countries.

Veering closer to the position adopted by the permanent members of the Security Council, China advocates peaceful dialogue between India and Pakistan to settle disputes, including Kashmir. Armed conflict between the two poses dilemmas for China. The experience of Kargil showed American intervention in regions close to China's sensitive western borders.

China's reactions to 9/11 and the future of Afghanistan were not too different from India's. China has been alert to the dangers from international terrorism even before September 2001. Along with Russia and four Central Asian states, it is a founder member of a new regional forum, the Shanghai Cooperative Organization established by a treaty in June 2001. Among its specific objectives is the one on combating the three evils of ethnic separatism, religious fundamentalism and international (ie. cross-border) terrorism. A secretariat has been set up in Bishkek, Kyrgzstan, for the six countries to coordinate intelligence sharing and the taking of preventive measures and diplomatic actions.

The organization also has broader objectives in the fields of political, economic and other forms of cooperation. The former Talibanised Afghanistan was an obvious target and here the role of Pakistan was underscored as it was excluded from joining the group although it was keen to become a member. This follows China's dissatisfaction with Pakistan's attempt at reigning in Taliban elements who fomented troubles in its sensitive Xinjiang province where Muslims form the majority.

Like India, China would have cautiously welcomed President Musharraf's new approach to cracking down on domestic jihadis. Although on opposite sides of the political spectrum, India and China share a common interest in seeing Pakistan evolve as a modernising, non fundamentalist state promoting harmony within and economic cooperation with its neighbours abroad. That both see terrorism fomented by extremists as a threat to their multi-ethnic and large countries is symbolised by the agreement to set up a working group on the subject reached during the Chinese premier's visit.

This is an addition to the existing mechanisms for structured expert and political level dialogues on the boundary and security issues. The formation of these building blocks to deepen mutual understanding of each other's concerns and to handle sensitive issues is a good augury for the future.

India's search for better relations with China inspite of reservations over the strength of Sino-Pak relations was articulated by External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's press conference on President Musharraf's televised address to the nation. The same spirit marked discussions on the boundary dispute during the Chinese premier's visit. The present emphasis is on expediting the process of reaching a mutually satisfactory agreement on the Line of Actual Control separating the armed forces of India and China. This would consolidate the existing military stability which de facto prevails all along the boundary. So far there have not been any reports of the Chinese seeking to complicate India's military mobilization in the west.

Zhu Rongji is known as the tough economic czar of China who prepared it for admission to the World Trade Organization, pushed through unpopular reforms to restructure failed state owned enterprises and banking institutions and re-focussed China's investment priorities to reduce disparities between the advanced coastal areas and the hinterland. That he intended to give substantive economic content to his visit was clear from his large sized delegation which included ministers in charge of economic department and leading businessmen who have an interest in imports from India.

It is a good sign that the leading chambers of Commerce and Industry namely FICCI and CII had combined (probably uniquely) to host the Chinese premier at Mumbai.

China and Hong Kong together accounted for almost US$ 7 billion in two-way trade with India in 2001. Not considerable by China's standards, this is still a sizeable chunk of India's overall international trade. Thus vested economic interest are slowly being built-up in improving Sino-Indian relations.

The visit also marked the signing of important agreements envisaging cooperation, operational issues of importance to respective government departments on both sides. One on hydrology of the mighty Brahmaputra river, which originates in Tibet, would provide precious data for flood control in India. Another deals with sanitary and plant protection measures and the cooperation necessary to facilitate trade in agricultural products.

Three other agreements in the fields of space and science and technology would enable close interactions between scientists in both countries and ensure access to research laboratories on a reciprocal basis. Such agreements are for functional cooperation which provide for the growth of substantive relation. Better direct communication though the agreement to give effect to the air agreement signed as far back as in 1988 may become a reality when Chinese airlines open flights to India soon.

"China has never viewed India as a threat, nor do we believe that India will regard China a threat. There should be only one future for China-India relations: coexistence in harmony and friendship from generation. This serves the interests of both people and conforms with the trend of our times", Premier Zhu announced at the banquet for him by the prime minister of India held on January 14. Also "we have more common understanding (with India) than differences and our interests far outweigh any friction."

Such statements are a manifestation of growing maturity in the conduct of Sino-Indian relations. For India, whose relations with USA, Western Europe and Japan have intensified remarkably after the truth of India's solitary anti-terrorism campaign was understood, such an evolution with China is to be welcomed.

C V Ranganathan was India's ambassador to China from 1987 to 1991 and to France from 1991-1993. Along with V C Khanna, he is the co-author of a book "India and China -- the way ahead" published in January 2000.

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