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Home > News > Columnists > Srikanth Kondapalli

PM in China: Engaging the Dragon

January 14, 2008

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All signals from New Delhi were orchestrated in an optimistic tone prior and during the Indian prime minister's visit to Beijing [Images] this week. All these statements emanating from the officials were positive and aimed at ameliorating China. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] termed Indian engagement with China as a "priority" and an "imperative necessity".

He, addressing the Indian business groups, urged them to "think big" in the age of globalisation. Although acknowledging border transgressions by China, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee downplayed these by invoking the periodic meetings of the institutionalised mechanisms between the two countries. Likewise, Defence Minister A K Anthony refused to be dragged into controversy about the Chinese improvements in military capabilities in Tibet.

Unmistakably, however, a series of events prior to the visit of the PM to China highlighted the broad concerns of New Delhi. As the India-United States 123 Agreement went into recess against the backdrop of the Indian "domestic difficulties" as the PM mentioned at the Hindustan Times summit and as the US went into the election mould, India appears to have decided to explore partnerships with other major powers in the world, including China.

As a result, in the last few months India on the one hand upgraded the dialogue process with China, including firstly preparations for the PM's visit to Beijing, postponed for the last two years, while at the same time initiated comprehensive security mechanisms such as testing long-range missiles (Agni III in October 2007) and missile interceptors (in December 2007).

Secondly, the strategic dialogue mechanism was renewed in December 2007 after two such dialogues were conducted at the foreign secretary level in January 2005 and January 2006. These were instituted to discuss and find ways to improve relations in a medium to long-term perspective and related to various issues including on the nuclear issue as well. Part of the effort of this dialogue was reflected in China changing its equation with India from a "constructive and cooperative security strategy" in 1988 to "strategic partnership and cooperation" announced in April 2005 during Premier Wen Jiabao's visit.

However, despite "positive" signals from Beijing during the PM's visit on the civilian nuclear technology issue, no progress is made on either a nuclear "de-targeting" or "non-targeting" agreements between the two countries. Nevertheless, it needs to be pointed out that Beijing is now prepared to support India in "important" international institutions and expressed its view to work with New Delhi in regional and international affairs.

Thirdly, an annual dialogue of the defence ministries of India and China was initiated in November 2007 to enhance military exchanges despite hiccups related to the level of engagement at the Lieutenant General or a Major General level. A joint training programme was launched between an Indian Army contingent with their Chinese counterparts in Kunming military district in December 2007. This is intended to raise "mutual trust" levels between the both militaries. Nevertheless, last month's re-evaluation of the Indian Army on Chinese military threat perception from "low" to "medium and high levels" is a pointer that hard calculations still overweigh each other in the coming period.

Fourthly, while India is losing considerably in balance of payments position with China (to the tune of $10 billion from the last year) and China is refusing to open its protected sectors for Indian business competition, both have expressed the opinion that further engagement in this sector poses considerable opportunities in the long term. Both have also plans to explore complementarities in the globalised economies. Specific areas of such cooperation could be in energy exploration and distribution, coordination in WTO and Doha round of discussions, etc, although China appears to explore a lonely furrow in these fields.

Some of the above stem from the broader Indian long-term strategic principles enunciated by the PM in January this year. These were codified into "three-pillar" strategies: viz., "strengthening India economically and technologically; second, to develop adequate defence capability making the optimal use of modern science and technology;  third, we must develop partnerships in the strategic economic and technological spheres to enlarge our policy choices and developmental options."

Of these three pillars, while the first two could possibly aim at guarding against China, the third pillar not only enjoins India to explore improvement in relations with Beijing but also with others such as Vietnam, Japan [Images], and Singapore -- with an implicit balance of power intention.

Engaging China was termed as the need of the hour by current Indian leaders. Some of the sentiments expressed during the PM's visit remind one of former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's 1954 engagement policy, enunciated prior to Henry Kissinger's vastly quoted policy towards China in 1971. Neither of these policies were a complete success, as illustrated by 1962 and the United States EP-3 surveillance plane incident.

In the context of India, however, without resolving bilateral issues (such as the border) and assuming that multilateral interactions (such as Bandung conference) with China could have elevated Indian profile proved futile due to Chinese forward push through the construction of the Karakoram Highway in 1954-57 matched by Nehru's "forward policy" and the subsequent skirmishes in 1962.

This should be a historical reminder for all of us.

Srikanth Kondapalli is Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University


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