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The Rediff Special/Srikanth Kondapalli
India & China: Seeking common ground
April 12, 2005
Earlier in this series:
Chinese ogre has giant appetite!
China & India: Future friends?
As with other similar visits, a concerted effort was made by both India and China to ensure that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit was seen as a significant trip which would have an impact not just on bilateral issues of concern but also at the regional and global levels.
This has been the trend as China re-adjusts its policy towards India since January 2005 from a purely bilateral or South Asian context to notice its strategic rise.
Previously, official accounts of China describe India as a big country in South Asia. For close watchers of Chinese foreign and security policies this meant confining India to the region, even by propping up Pakistan.
Is China encircling India?
Very few Chinese Premiers have visited India over the last five decades, starting with Zhou Enlai in June 1954 (followed by Jawaharlal Nehru's visit to China in October), Zhou's three visits in 1956 and the one in 1960 before the Cold War freeze set into the bilateral relations after the 1962 war.
The 34-year high-level political drought was reversed by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit in 1988, followed by the 1991 visit by then premier Li Peng.
The Li Peng Visit | Jiang Zemin's visit
However, it took nearly nine years for Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to visit India after Prime Minister P Narasimha Rao visited China in 1993. Prime Minister A Vajpayee's June 2003 visit came quick on the heels of Zhu's 2002 visit.
Only two Indian Presidents chose to visit China, R Venkataraman in 1992 and K R Narayanan in 2000 respectively, while the only Chinese president to visit India was Jiang Zemin in 1996.
This is not Wen's first visit to India. He made this 'journey to the west' in January 1994 as a Communist Party Politburo alternate member. A self-proclaimed devout Buddhist, he is considered to be an amenable personality in the Chinese political hierarchy. However, it needs to be seen how far Wen would be disposed to the idea of a Buddhist 'Vatican' at Bodh Gaya.
'China will be happy to have India in UN'
China has shown more interest in its relations with India in the last few years. The reasons for this renewed interest may be discerned from the Chinese press. At the outset, they have noticed the continuous stream of visitors to New Delhi with high-level delegations from the United States, Russia, Japan, European Union countries and South Korea.
After Wen's visit New Delhi would receive Japanese Prime Minister Koijumi in late April and US President George Bush probably later in the year.
Chinese military writers have noted increasing challenges posed by the United States military deployments at its peripheries in not just traditional areas like Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand but also the Philippines, Singapore, Pakistan, and Central Asian Republics.
They point to an 'Asian NATO' in the making with its operational focus which will extend beyond counter-terrorism campaign, and dread the prospect of China becoming the target during the second administration of President Bush.
With the events of April 2001 EP-3 surveillance plane incident at Hainan Island still fresh in Beijing's memory, it was advocated that China needs to wean away countries planning to join this club.
This is why China has revived the 1954 'good neighbourliness' policy in the last few years and stepped up efforts to enlarge its own club of countries that oppose unilateralism.
The Great India-China Game
More importantly, China noticed India's strategic rise in rapid economic growth rates, service sectors, 'new economy' fields like information, bio, space and nano technologies, military modernisation and a notional strategic parity with China in the nuclear field.
For a country mired in long-term strategy of weighing the strengths, weaknesses and Achilles Heels, China cannot ignore India. Indeed, both nations need to explore common ground over the coming years.
Both India and China have several commonalities in their approaches.
Both subscribe to 'independent' foreign policies, and are aware of the effects of globalisation and multipolar trends. Both are averse to join military blocks or alliances which would restrict their strategic autonomy, but at the same time loath to perform like the insular Mughal or Qing Dynasty rulers of yore.
Both are acutely conscious of their rising power.
Both are willing to 'postpone' a hot war for raising their economic and military potential.
Yet, both realise that their current comprehensive national power (economic, military and soft power) is not adequate to counter 'unipolar' tendencies. The 1999 Kosovo conflict and the 2003 Iraq War and deliberations at the United Nations made this amply clear.
This is the context for the hype reminding one of such slogans as Hindi-Chini bhai bhai of the 1950s.
Several Chinese and Indians have mentioned in the recent past that bilateral relations were never so good. They point towards the burgeoning trade (which touched $13.6 billion in 2004), increasing political and military visits, largely tranquil borders and efforts at arriving at a 'common understanding' in their perspectives.
India, China plan world's largest Free Trade Area
Nevertheless, unlike the 1950s when both tried to push contentious bilateral matters (the border dispute and Tibet) under the carpet, the current interactions exhibit confidence and the ability to address such divisive issues. These include the border dispute, Chinese assistance to Pakistan, specifically in the nuclear and missile issues (which the Government of India has termed as based on 'reliable' information and 'widespread' in nature) and militarisation of Tibet.
The Annual Report of the Indian ministry of defence has expressed concern over several Chinese missiles targeting Indian cities.
What's in store?
As stated by Wen at a press conference in Beijing on March 14, three issues were high on the agenda: looking at the relations from 'strategic and comprehensive perspective,' setting principles to solve the border dispute, and 'tap[ping] into the tremendous potential, expand cooperation and strive for common development.'
The January 2005 'strategic dialogue' covered preliminary ground by discussing economic globalisation and multipolarity, reforming the United Nations, and non-traditional security issues.
During Wen's visit, it would be interesting to see whether China is willing to cooperate effectively with India in the World Trade Organisation, in joint efforts to counter terrorism and proliferation, or work together in countering piracy in South China Sea areas or arrive at an agreement on detargeting nuclear tipped ballistic missiles.
Burying the hatchet in the new millennium
The 15th Joint Working Group has been revived after the last 2002 meeting, and both held border talks in March 30-31, for 'clarification and confirmation' of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
A 5th Special Representative meeting took place March 10 to look into political principles for solving the border dispute. That means, after the talks started in 1981, it would be nearly a quarter century to ponder over mere 'principles,' if not the actual delineation and demarcation.
Partly, this is a result of the Chinese penchant for shifting focus from the Western Sector as in the 1950s to considering Eastern Sector (specifically Tawang) as the 'most significant' dispute between the two sides during the 1990s.
'Wen visit will open new chapter'
While the two sides exchanged maps on their respective positions on the LAC in the Middle Sector, China dragged its feet in the Western Sector, which includes Chinese acquisition of Kashmir territory -- the Sakshgam Valley of about 5,200 square kilometers -- in 1963 from Pakistan.
If China's desire is to transform 'sterile' borders into 'productive' borders with free trade zones, it cannot do so without clarifying the borders first.
More productive areas during this visit appear to be in the economic and trade issues with new targets for further increasing bilateral trade. That must be good news to Indian and Chinese businesses, though it needs to be seen what would be the likely response of China to the growing Taiwanese trade and investments with India.
China itself has made a fortune with scores of Taiwanese firms shifting operations into the coastal Chinese provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, but is wary of any other country developing such relations.
Wen Jiabao in India: Complete coverage
Srikanth Kondapalli is the author of several books and monographs on China including China's Military: The PLA in Transition (1999), China's Naval Power (2001), A Great Leap Forward Modernization