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Home > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

Euphoria over PM's China visit unwarranted

January 15, 2008

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Chinese geopolitical commentators, not known to give in to emotions, made an exception recently, while describing the new year's eve visit of Japan [Images]ese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's to Beijing [Images] as a 'rip-roaring success'. Unsurprisingly, within a fortnight of the visit -- on January 14 -- Japan went ahead and conducted its first test for the deployment of the components of the US missile defence system in the Tokyo region.

Japan claims it is meeting a potential threat from the North Korean 'rogue state', but Beijing would have no difficulty assessing what the cutting edge of the missile defence system is meant to be in the fullness of time. Nothing brings home the complexities of the Asian security scenario. Yet, all indications are Japan will continue to engage China. Japan has no real choice in the matter but to sustain the development and expansion of the bilateral relationship on 'win-win' terms. China remains equally realistic.

On January 12, Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the US Pacific Command, arrived in China on a weeklong visit aimed at 'understanding better' the PLA's (People's Liberation Army) decision-making process. No doubt, Japan's testing of the US missile defence system is highly unlikely to dampen the mood in Beijing as regards Chinese President Hu Jintao's forthcoming visit to Japan.

In such a highly volatile juncture in Asian security, it is just as well that Chinese commentators have shown great reticence in hailing our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's [Images] visit to Beijing. Certainly, they weren't lacking in warmth and cordiality, but they haven't gone overboard like their Indian counterparts are doing. They were correct to the point of being guarded. In fact, Hu was away from Beijing on an inspection tour of the eastern Anhui province touring factories, villages, communities and disaster-hit areas when Dr Singh was visiting Beijing. China's leadership is clear about national priorities. So it should be.

At any rate, the euphoria in sections of the Indian media over Dr Singh's visit is misplaced. If we turn back the annals of our current diplomatic history and look at one of the finest joint statements crafted by our able diplomats in the recent times -- the document on the trilateral dialogue with Russia [Images] and China hosted by India in February last year -- many misconceptions regarding the durability of such so-called 'vision' documents would clear up.

The big news out of Dr Singh's visit is undoubtedly the shared vision regarding the bilateral trade and economic relations. The revised ambitious target for 2010 set by the two countries for their trade volume -- $60 billion (about Rs 240,000 crore) -- sends a positive signal to the international community that an important milestone has been reached in the evolution of overall India-China relations.

There has also been a substantive move to diversify and broaden the economic ties. To be sure, it is through deeper engagement that a climate of trust and confidence could fully come to prevail in the bilateral relationship within which it becomes possible to address seemingly intractable issues like the border dispute.

An element of 'win-win magnanimity' is already apparent -- in small glimpses, though. Delhi made a concession regarding the commencement of discussions over a Regional Trading Arrangement. China has been pressing for a full-fledged free-trade agreement. A via media that satisfies China has been found. Equally, we may derive satisfaction that China now 'understands and supports' India's aspirations to become a member of the United Nations Security Council. But, on the other hand, it is not any negativism on China's part that alone stood in the way of UN reforms or the fulfilment of Indian aspirations for UNSC membership.

Clearly, Beijing has been pragmatic enough not to be seen as the 'spoiler' holding up India's progress as a great power. The same pragmatism is visible in their will to cooperate with India in civilian nuclear energy. Some Indian media commentators have interpreted this as a signal that Beijing is acknowledging India's status as a nuclear weapon power. But that's going too far out into an over-interpretation drive, besides needlessly exploring a corridor that still remains dark and obscure.

Having said that, Indian spokesmen are correct in interpreting that China's readiness to cooperate with India in civilian nuclear energy will have 'certain implications' for the processes within the Nuclear Suppliers Group when the Indo-US nuclear deal is formally taken up in that body in the coming weeks or months.

In fact, what now becomes quite apparent is that despite the vicissitudes of India's domestic politics, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government is adopting a very effective salami tactic in chopping up the opposition to the deal within the country into tiny, unrecognisable fragments of a mere residual nature.

Whether it succeeds, time will tell. However, on its part, Beijing has obviously sized up how terribly important it is for the UPA government under its present leadership to clinch the nuclear deal with the US. And, Beijing has duly decided that it shouldn't come to be perceived as a stumbling block.

If Delhi and Washington now indeed clinch the deal, it will be, partly at least, due to China's friendly stance in the NSG. Beijing has ensured that its friendly stance has been conveyed to Delhi even ahead of the Indo-US deal formally reaching the NSG after completing the remaining formalities with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Conversely, in the unlikely event of the Indo-US nuclear deal withering away due to whatever reasons in the coming months, then again, China is not even remotely to be mentioned as a villain of the piece.

India's claim for UNSC membership and the Indo-US nuclear deal -- China's changing attitude towards these core issues of India's foreign policy makes a most interesting point. Beijing cannot do much about Indians who see the shadow of the dragon behind every tree. But it is keen to ensure that if India has shortfalls in meeting its tryst with destiny, that shouldn't be on account of perceived Chinese antipathy.

On a positive note, what appears is that China understands that a relationship of trust and equality needs to be based on sensitivity to the concerns and aspirations of the other.

How this spirit of mutual accommodation -- "a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution" -- gets reflected in the discussions over the boundary dispute remains to be seen. Very obviously, the vision document isn't indicative of any breakthrough on the boundary dispute. It will be sometime before details emerge of any discussions having taken place on this issue on the sidelines of Dr Singh's visit between the concerned officials of the two sides.

In the coming months, the core issue for China will be the dimensions of the Indo-US strategic partnership, which is fast expanding and deepening, and is poised for a leap forward. The developing 'mil-to mil' cooperation between the US and India; the ensuing 'inter-operability' of the armed forces of India and the US; India's potential partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; India's willingness to partake of the US missile defence system programme -- will remain some of the key areas of concern to Beijing.

In sum, any sense of euphoria over the outcome of Dr Singh's visit is completely unwarranted. The sense of proportion with which the government handled the visit underscores a profound understanding of this ground reality. Platitudes of the vision document notwithstanding, the cold reality is that both China and India are engaged in a period of adjustment in a highly volatile regional and international environment.

To compound the variables, the process of adjustment has just about begun and is likely to be drawn out. On balance, Beijing has thus far proved to be distinctly more successful than Delhi in steering the trajectory of its adjustment path.

The writer is a former ambassador.

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