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India-China ties: No longer hostage
to the past

June 27, 2003

If the principles enshrined in the Joint Declaration signed by the two prime ministers last Tuesday are upheld in political practice and policy, then Mr Vajpayee will have succeeded at long last in moving the bilateral relationship firmly onto the track of cooperation in all fields of a nation's activities.

Over the years since 1962, as memories began to dim, and the world changed, both India and China faced a compelling need to move towards a 'normal' or working relationship. The effort began with Mr Vajpayee's visit of 1979 as foreign minister, and was given a boost by the decision to seek 'normalisation' in tandem with a border settlement during Rajiv Gandhi's visit of 1988. Nevertheless, this process has not been easy and it has been difficult to surmount the many obstacles that divide them.

Some, like the territorial issue and the nature of the Sino-Pakistan equation, arouse strong national emotions and have a complicating domestic dimension. Moreover, images and fears of the 'other' in the public mind also need to change if policy is to change. For instance there was (is) the Indian image of a belligerent China, unwilling to see India emerge as an equal, determined to seek 'hegemony' in Asia, befriending Pakistan to 'keep India tied down to the sub-continent' etc etc. China's shadowy role in Pakistan's nuclear and missile programme, its Myanmar connection and its economic dynamism only added to Indian fears.

Thus, on the eve of the prime minister's visit to Beijing, the cover story of a popular newsmagazine was titled 'Who's Afraid of China? and projected a country where among other things 'the supermarket hides a super gulag.' There is the Chinese mirror image of an equally hegemonistic India, lording it over its smaller neighbours, seeking superpower alliances to 'encircle' China etc.

Hopefully, recent government policies and pronouncements, increasing interest in China's stunning economic performance, and, of course, television that has made the Chinese real to vast numbers in this country will help change these images as will tourism and academic exchanges. The prime minister has given a grant to set up a Centre of Indian Studies at Beijing University but Chinese studies in India still lag far behind and need support. Already a shift in the media projected image and perception of China seems to have come about as interest in the economic has displaced focus on the political and strategic, and there has been great interest in the Vajpayee visit. The very fact that a 51-member trade delegation accompanied him, as did the two ministers of commerce and IT, and his scheduled visit to China's commercial capital, Shanghai, raised public expectations on the economic front.

These expectations have not been belied. The political green light for a rapid expansion of trade and commerce has been given at the highest levels. Industry has received the support and encouragement from government that it had been yearning for. Visa rules are to be relaxed, bureaucratic procedures simplified, trade expected to triple within the next decade, and a new high level group of economists and officials to identify areas of cooperation between the business communities of the two sides. Finally, the prime minister revived and endorsed the powerful image of an unbeatable combine of Indian software and Chinese hardware that had been suggested by Premier Zhu Rongji on his visit to India last year.

An unexpected bonus was the agreement to open an additional point for border trade via Nathu La in Sikkim. This agreement appears to be politically innocent but actually has great political significance. Article 1 of that agreement reads inter alia that 'the Indian side agrees to designate Changhu of Sikkim state as the venue for border trade market; the Chinese side agrees to designate Renqinggang of the Tibet Autonomous Region as the venue for border trade market.' This bald sentence masks the diplomatic achievement of the seemingly impossible. It is being interpreted as a confirmation of the existing realities, namely, that Sikkim is part of India as Tibet is of China though both will continue to assert that this is not so. That is the way of diplomacy and there is no way to simplifying this interlocking problem.

It stems from the bitter dispute between India and China over the opaque and complex territorial issue that remains unresolved. It also relates to the 1975 merger of Sikkim with India, which China does not recognise, to the presence of the Dalai Lama in India which acknowledges Tibet only as an 'Autonomous Region of China,' while China insists that Tibet be described as an 'inalienable' part of China. These firmly held positions have severely inhibited normalization as well as the movement of goods and people across the Tibet-Sikkim border. Yet, in today's world of aggressive economic globalisation, the imperative of neighbourhood and regional cooperation is battering away at hard national borders. And as the experience of South Asia shows, borders remain closed to trade, travel and tourism, while territorial disputes remain unresolved and relations strained.

China's experience has been different. In the last decade, it gave priority to settling territorial disputes with all of its five new Central Asian neighbours that became independent when the USSR disintegrated. It also did so with Vietnam, Laos and Mongolia. Consequently it has close relations, border trade and even strategic understanding with all its peripheral states except India. In that same decade, the India-China border has been peaceful and stable. Confidence Building Measures are in place on the Line of Actual Control, the territorial issue is under discussion, and the two sides have agreed to abjure the use of force 'by any means.' Vajpayee's subtle recognition of the frontier realities in Sikkim and Tibet will/should spur a reasonable resolution of the border dispute, encourage cross border trade and tourism and help to improve local and regional economies.

Mr Vajpayee attempted to cut through this complex mix of suspicions and realities to reach out to the future when he declared: 'We should focus on the simple truth that there is no objective reason for discord between us and neither of us is a threat to the other.' To reassure his domestic public, he confirmed that the 'highest political levels' in China shared the same sentiment and wanted 'to build stable, enduring and forward looking ties of friendship.' In short, what Mr Vajpayee will bring home is that the overall relationship and the economic development of the two countries and the region, will no longer be hostage to the past. 

 Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea is Co-Chair, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi


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