January 24, 2002


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Jing-dong Yuan

Relations improve, but new challenges lie ahead

After Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's visit to India, somewhat overshadowed by the standoff between India and Pakistan, Beijing and New Delhi have achieved something to congratulate themselves on. While Zhu may have tried to encourage restraint on both India and Pakistan to avoid a military confrontation, his visit had a different but no less important mission.

Almost four years after the Pokhran II nuclear tests, the long-awaited visit should put bilateral ties on a sound footing after painstaking efforts over the last few years to build a normal relationship. The official meetings and Zhu's tours to Mumbai and Bangalore generated some concrete results. The two countries have agreed to strengthen economic ties, including resumption of direct flights between Beijing and New Delhi and an important memorandum of understanding for cooperation in space, science and technology. Minister for External Affairs Jaswant Singh will also visit China in March.

But the more substantive result, as far as India is concerned, is China's willingness to cooperate with India in combating terrorism, a term Beijing has shunned in the past in consideration of the sensitive nature of the issue to long-time ally Pakistan. China and India have come a long way to restoring their tattered relationship in the wake of the May 1998 nuclear tests.

The fallout of Pokhran II was much animosity between these two rising Asian powers. However, since Jaswant Singh's visit to China in June 1999, a normalisation process has taken place. The two sides have on many occasions publicly announced that they do not view each other as a security threat. The joint working group on border issues has resumed its regular meetings and in November last, for the first time, exchanged maps on the middle sector of the Line of Actual Control. A security dialogue has been initiated. And the leaders of the two countries, including high-level military officers, have exchanged visits.

Despite these welcome developments, serious obstacles to normal relations remain. These include the unresolved boundary issue, Tibet, and the Sino-Pakistani nexus. The boundary issue, which involves over 125,000 square kilometres in disputed territories, continues to evade solution and remains a sticking point in bilateral relations. While both governments have agreed to speed up the process of LAC demarcation, at the moment neither side is strong enough to overcome the still enormous domestic popular sentiment (more so in India than in China) to achieve a final settlement.

Tibet will likely constitute another point of contention. The strategic significance of Tibet to both India and China is obvious. New Delhi has always regarded Tibet as a security buffer between itself and China. Indian analysts argue that China's deployment of nuclear missiles on the Tibetan plateau seriously threatens Indian security. For Beijing, the very fact that India provides refuge to over 100,000 Tibetans and the Dalai Lama will always be a touchy issue.

Perhaps the most contentious issue for bilateral relations is China's strategic relationship with Pakistan. China's alleged nuclear and missile assistance to Pakistan continues to prove to New Delhi that Beijing intends to tie India down. While Beijing rejects charges of involvement in Pakistan's nuclear and missile programmes and maintains that improved Sino-Indian relations should not be based on a distancing of the Sino-Pak relationship, New Delhi insists that this should be the litmus test of China's sincerity.

Over the years, since the process of normalisation began, Chinese support to key Pakistani positions such as the Kashmir question has weakened and become more ambivalent. This was demonstrated during the 1999 Kargil crisis.

Beijing's interest in continued support to Pakistan, including endorsement of General Pervez Musharraf's government, lies in a desire to maintain stability in that country against the backdrop of rising Islamic fundamentalism. The American war against terrorism in Afghanistan has seen a reaffirmation of the Sino-Pak relationship in recent months, typified by Gen Musharraf's two trips to China in the last few weeks. But one could argue that Beijing is more interested in keeping Islamabad under its influence against the encroaching US presence than encouraging Pakistan to embark on reckless adventures. The last thing China wants is a military confrontation between the two South Asian foes.

Premier Zhu's visit provided a rare opportunity for the leaders of the two countries to tackle these issues at the highest political level. Four critical issues need to be carefully considered if real progress is to be made.

First, the two sides should seriously and candidly discuss their bottom lines on the boundary issue. For years, the idea of a swap has been floated without serious takers. Both sides must realise that the current LAC, with some minor adjustments, offers the best chance for a final settlement of their territorial issues. For all the sentiments and national pride, the fact is that significant changes to accommodate each other's demands -- China's on the eastern sector, what is now Arunachal Pradesh, or India's on Aksai Chin in the western sector -- cannot possibly be met without resort to the use of force. And military confrontation between two nuclear weapons states over desolate lands is hardly worth it.

Second, China should address India's concerns on the Pakistan issue. Beijing must convince New Delhi that proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems are not in China's interest either, even with regard to a longstanding ally such as Pakistan. It should also convey to India that China's continued close relationship with Pakistan could help Beijing persuade Islamabad to stop supporting terrorist activities and seek a political settlement of the Kashmir issue through bilateral negotiation. China should and can do more to dispel Indian concerns, but New Delhi should also resist putting too much emphasis on the Sino-Pak relationship and denying itself the opportunity to improve relations with China.

Third, the two sides must express their strategic intentions in clear terms to avoid any misperception and miscalculation. This relates to their nuclear postures and missile developments. China and India have both a declared no-first-use policy, but Beijing has so far shunned New Delhi's request for a bilateral NFU commitment.

China possesses a sufficient number of missiles to target all major Indian cities. India's current development of the Agni missile is a way to address that strategic imbalance. At the same time, China's possible responses to US deployment of ballistic missile defences (including an expanded Chinese nuclear missile force) could trigger a further Indian buildup in its nuclear and missile forces.

In such a context, strategic dialogue and the introduction of arms control mechanisms -- a bilateral NFU could be one such measure -- could serve to head off an unnecessary spiral of arms competition to an arms race. In the same vein, India should be forthright with its rationale for endorsing US missile defence plans and its growing ties with the US. New Delhi also needs to dispel misgivings in Beijing that India is playing the 'democracy' and 'market' cards to gain US support for a greater Indian role in global and regional affairs and that India is a potential junior partner in a US global strategy to contain China.

Finally, the leaders of the two countries should have the foresight to look beyond the security prism. There are many areas in which China and India can cooperate globally and bilaterally. Both support the five principles of peaceful coexistence as the basis for building a post-Cold War multi-polar international order. Both oppose hegemonism, power politics and interference in domestic affairs. Both insist that the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament is the complete destruction of nuclear weapons. Both have also held that each country's political, economic, and social developments should be based on a country's history and own choices, rather than imposed from without.

As the two largest developing countries, China and India also seek a more equitable, just and fair international economic order so the south can better benefit from globalisation. And finally, the two countries have great potential to expand their bilateral trade, which, at $3 billion annually, is woefully inadequate. China can learn a lot from India's information technology industry while India can benefit from China's overflow of consumer goods. Indeed, the Chinese premier challenged Indian and Chinese scientists working in the industry to greater cooperation and mutual promotion.

Opportunities and challenges abound for Sino-Indian relations. Premier Zhu's visit could chart a new course for the coming decade. A normal and stable bilateral relationship makes significant contribution to regional and global peace and security.

Jing-dong Yuan is a senior research associate at the Centre for Non-proliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, California.

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