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Home > News > Columnists > Srikanth Kondapalli

Sonia in China: Mending fences

October 30, 2007

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Congress Party President and ruling United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi's [Images] visit to China from October 25 to 29 which included the cities of Beijing [Images], Xian and Shanghai is expected to contribute to improving the atmospherics between the two countries. She visited China previously accompanied by her husband Rajiv Gandhi in late 1988, and then in 1996, while cancelling a visit in 2003.

The visit was accompanied by its usual hype -- both from the Indian and Chinese sides. This was said to be the first foreign leader's visit to China after it completed theĀ 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress and a 'new' political dispensation took over the reigns of China for five years.

However, although some new faces did surface in the Standing Committee, Politburo and Central Committee, the political leadership essentially retained Deng Xiaoping's reformist agenda and reflected on Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin's combined hold. Interestingly, with about 10 percent of the new Central Committee members traced to the sons and daughters of the CCP cadres, dynastic politics appears to be the new glue between the CCP and the Congress party.

Sonia referred to her trip as a 'milestone' in bilateral relations, while Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao termed her work in improving bilateral relations as 'of great importance'. In the backdrop of the 'domestic difficulties' that the UPA is facing on operationalisation of the United States-India nuclear deal, China's support not only at the Nuclear Supplies Group but also its clout with the Communist parties in India would be useful.

This visit should be seen in the context of related developments. Firstly, while there is essentially one political party in China today -- the CCP -- it has working relations with several political parties in the world, including with Indian political parties. This places CCP in an advantageous position. Previously, the Congress party had working relations with Nationalist Kuomintang in the 1940s when it invited Chiang Kai-shek to Delhi but these relations suffered as CCP replaced KMT in 1949. The CCP has working relations with Communist Party of India-Marxist, CPI, the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, the Janata Dal, and even sub-groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and has sent and received delegations from these parties in the past.

Traditionally, liaison with other parties comes under the 'united front' work department of the CCP with the objectives of not only expanding 'mutual understanding' but influencing and moulding them towards the CCP objectives. Despite significant political differences, the CCP appeared to be more close to CPI and CPI-M and comfortable with the Congress (despite Nehru's 'betrayal') than with the early BJP/NDA rule (till the nuclear tests in 1998). However, essentially all these parties now share similar views on economic reform programme but with the common agenda of surviving in the globalising winds.

Given the Cold War context and asymmetries between the two countries, the Congress initiated a pragmatic engagement policy with China in 1954 and renewed after 1976. Thus, Sonia Gandhi in her speech at the Qinghua University, which graduates most of the important political leaders of China, said that 'pragmatism and mutual self-interest' are best suited to India-China relations. However, on the contentious issue of resolving the border dispute, although the Congress resolved in 1988 to follow a 'give and take' policy, Rajiv Gandhi even with two-thirds majority in the then Parliament stopped short of making India compromise with China on this emotional issue.

Evidently, the political costs of selling the compromise formula on border issue to the Indian public are fraught with dangers.

Secondly, much as in 1988 when a Joint Working Group was established to resolve the border dispute, a day before Sonia Gandhi's visit came the agreement between two foreign ministers in Harbin about setting up (yet another) working group. The JWG met 15 times between 1988 and 2005 and the Special Representatives met 11 times from 2003 till last month but all were unable to resolve the dispute so far.

This is traced to the intransigence on the part of the Chinese side which had exhibited harsher position in the last one year as shown in the Chinese Ambassador Sun Yuxi's statement on Arunachal Pradesh in November 2006 followed by denial of a visa to an IAS officer from that state this year and reported statement of the new Chinese foreign minister on the issue of 'populated areas' and recently on 'bunkers' issue in Sikkim.

Last week's admission by Indo-Tibetan Border Police chief that about 140 transgressions of the line of actual control took place in the last one year further adds tensions between the two countries.

Thirdly, China, besieged with what President Hu Jintao termed as 'crucial state of China's reform and development' period, is looking for seizing 'strategic opportunities in the next two decades'.

These are Chinese code words for tackling social unrest at home despite maintaining double-digit economic growth figures on the one hand and on how to position in the global arena given the decline of the United States' 'soft power' in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A 'united front' with several large political parties across the world -- like with that of the Congress -- can help the CCP ward off challenges to its stability.

It is not without reason that Hu, in his meeting with Sonia Gandhi, mentioned that 'mutually beneficial cooperation will change the look of Asia and the world at large'. The CCP leaders remember well that Rajiv Gandhi termed the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989 as a 'domestic issue' of China and refused to be part of the Western outcry on the issue.

Srikanth Kondapalli is Associate Professor in Chinese Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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