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Chinese change of policy or heart?
Srikanth Kondapalli
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January 20, 2006

Behind the gruelling four sessions and about nine hours of discussions between Indian and Chinese interlocutors at Beijing [Images] last week, one (India) must be quietly satisfied with the turn of events in the last year or so.

For China, which is bent on blocking the United States from entering different regions of Asia such as in Central Asia and in the just-concluded East Asia Summit, relations with India are becoming important, if not vital. For India, which was never acknowledged by China as a major power, the outcome is a tacit recognition that India matters for China in Asia and beyond.

Specifically in the backdrop of worsening of its relations with the other rising power in Asia, that is Japan [Images], a 'year of friendship' between the two countries in 2006 is essential from the Chinese point of view.

Then, is 2005-2006 becoming 1954-1955 in the sense of the revival of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai?

China -- in the current international circumstances -- would prefer this equation, while India may go along if this is not followed by 1962 kind of events!

Of course, the crucial element missing is the idealism of Nehru-Zhou years that is replaced by pragmatism on both sides now.

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran's second strategic dialogue with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei from January 10 to 11 at Beijing is being viewed as a breakthrough in India-China relations for the import this could have on not only bilateral issues like the border dispute but also in the Asian region and the world at large.

'Rise of India, China a wake-up call for world'

In several ways, bilateral relations have acquired a new meaning in the last one year after the first dialogue was carried by both countries in January 2005 followed by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit in April that witnessed the signing of a 'strategic and cooperative partnership'.

This has been a departure from the previous Chinese policy of confining India to the South Asian region and viewing bilateral relations from a tactical angle. From the late 1988 visit of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing, such relations were viewed in the framework of 'constructive and cooperative security'.

Several events have contributed to this change in India-China relations from tactical to strategic transformation between 1988 and 2005-2006.

Not only is India rising in economic, technological and military spheres, along with that of China, India's multilateral approach is gaining for it several partners in the world, besides its advantageous geopolitical position in the Indian Ocean that overlooks the flow of energy and merchandise between the producers and consumers in West and Southeast and East Asian regions.

For China, the geopolitical and strategic compulsions are too many to ignore in this change of policy, if not a change of heart towards India.

India asks for Chinese support at NSG

While certain military and strategic experts in China still sport the Cold War mentality and propose containment of India by propping up and maintaining or enhancing relations with Pakistan and Myanmar and building relations with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka [Images], the civilian leadership and, increasingly, the commercial lobby has been pressing for expansion of relations with India.

While the Chinese civilian leadership desires to build up a 'united front' with like-minded States against the 'unipolar moment' of the current history to probably assert its leadership over Asia, the commercial groups are in the forefront of expanding trade and cooperation.

Thus in the largely Chinese-driven political and economic initiatives towards India, last few years have seen major re-articulations of policies.

Bilateral trade reached more than $18 billion in 2005 as against about $14 billion the year before, with India having more favourable balance of payments position vis-�-vis China.

China has allowed two other regions -- Central Asian Republics and South East Asian countries that are perceived to be coming under China's influence -- to have trade surpluses with it in the recent period.

China twice as good as India

In this context, the second strategic dialogue stressed India and China 'working together in terms of the evolving regional situation in Asia as well as the global situation'. While multipolarity, multilateralism, World Trade Organisation and countering trans-national phenomena like terrorism, drug-trafficking and environmental degradation were mentioned as possible areas of cooperation in the enlarged envelope of bilateral concerns, it appears that India's stature has been elevated in Asia.

In the event, the reported Chinese opposition to expansion of Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus three (to include the 10 Southeast Asian countries, China, Japan and South Korea) gave way to ASEAN plus six (to include not only ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea but also India, Australia and New Zealand [Images]) on December 14 last year at Kuala Lumpur.

Likewise, after Japan withdrew from the Group-4 nations' bid for the United Nations Security Council permanent seat, the ball is now in the Chinese court as it has in 2005 promised to support a developing country for this position. In other words, China's vague policy of backing India in 2005 will be tested in the 'year of friendship' of 2006.

The principle of 'strategic and cooperative partnership' between the two countries will also be tested, and lessons drawn on building ties in 2006 and beyond, on progress related to outstanding concerns of both countries which have been exhibited at bilateral, regional and global levels.

China's role in supporting the forces of the Nepalese monarchy with weapons and training to counter Maoists and the reported building of infrastructure projects will be watched closely in India.

India, China plan Asia energy agency

Likewise, the reported Chinese chasing of Indian-contracted energy fields in Myanmar's Rakhine state and transportation links will be reviewed in the context of growing pattern of joint collaboration of energy projects by India and China elsewhere.

In the regional multilateral institutions, while India has expressed satisfaction for being an observer of the Chinese-driven Shanghai Cooperation Organisation at the Asthana summit last September, a similar demand was made of China becoming an observer in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. While that demand was accepted at the 2005 Dhaka summit of SAARC nations, the 'responsible; nature of China would be keenly observed in the region.

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