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PM in China: Stability in times of turmoil
Srikanth Kondapalli
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January 09, 2008 16:50 IST
Last Updated: January 10, 2008 13:37 IST

One of the uppermost objectives of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's [Images] visit to Beijing [Images] next week, reciprocal, largely symbolic and at most incremental in improving bilateral relations, is how to usher in stability in the region ravaged by internal turmoil and cope with the uncertainties in the global strategic environment.

While this visit is expected not to forge any major breakthrough on outstanding issues that afflict bilateral relations in the last five decades, as with the other high-level political visits between the two countries so far, the bottom line is to create conditions that possibly tie both countries in politico-legal frameworks of stability.

For sure, the past record of high level political visits between the two countries belied hopes for normalising relations between the two largest countries in Asia, both of which are posting high economic growth rates in the last decade. Previous visits by Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee to China can at best be termed as incremental in evolving relations between the two countries. Asymmetry of power between the two -- largely in China's favour -- is generally cited as the reason for at times Beijing's harsh and unpredictable responses.

However, assuming that India continues to be at the receiving end of Beijing's antics today could be far from the truth. A number of developments in the security architecture of Asia and beyond contributed to this change recently, apart from the new found confidence in which India now acts as a result of its rise.

Firstly, a pragmatic Zhongnanhai (the ghetto for Chinese leaders in Beijing) noted the importance of natural resources, emerging software and markets of India, apart from its traditional independent foreign policy. China, as with other manufacturing countries, eyes the 300-million strong Indian middle-class as potential consumers.

Bilateral trade thus multiplied reaching to the current level of about $34.2 billion (about Rs 136,800 crore), although largely in favour of China in the last two years and the trade basket overwhelmingly composed of raw materials. Although Chinese investments in India is a miniscule $1 billion (about Rs 4,000 crore), China suggested it would invest about $8 billion (about Rs 32,000 crore) in the Indian market in the coming years.

This is an attractive proposition for the Indian business, who plan to send nearly a 40-member business delegation along with the prime minister, although this figure is comparatively less when compared to nearly 150 businessmen who accompanied Vajpayee in June 2003.

Secondly, the United States's assessments from 2001, specifically US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's early 2005 statement on helping India become a major power in the 21st century and subsequent de-hyphening of India and Pakistan in the US policy has forced reassessments in Chinese foreign policy which viewed so far India as an important country within South Asia and not at the Asian or international levels.

This change is reflected in the statements made by Premier Wen Jiabao during his April 2005 visit to Delhi as well as President Hu Jintao's visit in November 2006. As a result we witnessed 'coordination' between the two countries at the Bali meeting on environmental issues and the World Trade Organisation. It is likely that the Manmohan Singh-Wen Jiabao joint statement next week reiterates this point on jointly working together at the Asian level. This is an incremental improvement in India-China relations.

Thirdly, today, as a result of the partial successes of the Look East policy and the Indian Navy's swift response during natural calamities like the December 2004 tsunami, several countries in the neighbourhood consider India as a partner while Chinese territorial ambitions and its rise are viewed with concern.

Fourthly, Indian improvement in its deterrent capability as reflected in the successful test of Agni III in October 2007 and an anti-missile shield in December 2007 and reports about the starting designs for the development of 5,500 km range Agni IV -- pose concerns for Beijing.

If Rajiv Gandhi's visit in December 1988 preceded the success of a large-scale Indian military exercise, Operation Checkerboard, Manmohan Singh would have been satisfied for not only acquiring relative conventional superiority vis-a-vis China (although nullified by strategic asymmetry) but also conducting conflict preventive joint training between the two armies at Kunming last month.

These developments are reflected in the relative balance between the two countries. Although several events in the last year threatened to destabilise relations, the current visit is likely to consolidate bilateral relations and usher in stability. Thus bilateral relations were racked by the liangshou (two hands) policy adopted by Sun Yuxi, the then Chinese ambassador to India. While his soft hand approach attempted to create stakes between the two economies by promoting business, on the other hand, the hard approach raked up the Arunachal Pradesh issue, enhanced border transgressions, reportedly demolished bunkers and the like. This may have led Ambassador Sun to return to Beijing before the prime minister's visit and perhaps can be termed as 'standing up'!

Srikanth Kondapalli is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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