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Home > News > Report

Interesting times for India-China relations

Nikhil Lakshman in Beijing | January 13, 2008 22:34 IST
Last Updated: January 14, 2008 05:07 IST

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Hawks in search of appropriate atmospheric metaphors to describe Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's [Images] visit to China would have been heartened by the constant turbulence accompanying Air India One's flight to Beijing [Images] early on Sunday and the below freezing temperatures -- minus eight degrees Centigrade -- that greeted the Indian delegation in the Chinese capital that morning.

But forecasts of a frosty, rough patch in India-China relations, observers in New Delhi and Beijing told, may be inaccurate for now.

The Chinese would neither like controversy nor conflict till the Olympics [Images] conclude this August. The Games are Beijing's long awaited moment to seize what it believes is its rightful place in the sun and it won't allow anything -- not even next week's referendum in Taiwan (read more here) -- to rain on its parade.

Even though the Chinese have been vocal about their claim to Arunachal Pradesh in the past 14 months, these observers believe no movement is expected on the contentious border issue during the prime minister's visit.

The Chinese know the prime minister has been weakened by the political stalemate over the India-US nuclear agreement, but Dr Singh, these observers say, begins his official talks with the Chinese leadership on Monday confident that India today has a minimum credible deterrent vis-a-vis China.

The successful test of the Agni 3, which can carry a nuclear warhead and has a 3,000 km range in the weeks leading up to the visit -- accompanied by Defence Research and Development Organisation Chief Controller V K Saraswat's assertion at the Indian Science Congress in Vishakhapatnam on January 8 that India will test the Agni 3 +, a ballistic missile capable of hitting targets more than 5,000 km next year -- indicate enhanced defence capability, earning Chinese respect.

Yet, adds a China watcher, India is not confronting China in the short or medium term.

India and China being nuclear powers, he says, makes it almost impossible for both countries to go to war again over the border issue that remains unresolved 45 years after the 1962 conflict.

Unlike his predecessors Rajiv Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee who all called for the border issue to be resolved immediately, Dr Singh has been characteristically measured, saying the dispute was not 'unidimensional,' and India and China should go about building a strong relationship, regardless of the disagreement over where each nation's boundary ends and the other's begins. It is a theme India has already, unsuccessfully, employed with Pakistan, telling Islamabad that, regardless of Kashmir, it should engage and improve relations with New Delhi.

Unlike the Line of Control, which divides India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir [Images] and remains in violent ferment all year around, the Line of Actual Control, as the India-Chinese border is called, remains almost sonorously peaceful through the year, barring the non violent transgressions into each other's territory by Chinese and Indian troops. The last time a soldier died on the border was in 1975 when he strayed to the other side in deep fog and was shot accidentally.

Last year, Chinese soldiers are said to have committed 140 such transgressions according to the Indo Tibetan Border Police. Quizzed about it in Beijing on Sunday night, an Indian diplomat played down the impact of these violations of the border as routine assertions by either side of their territorial claims.

Prime Minister Singh, an observer in New Delhi told on condition that he would not be identified for this report, has not been as forgiving. He is said to have insisted that Chinese Ambassador Sun Yuxi -- who highlighted the Chinese claim to Arunachal Pradesh in an interview to CNN-IBN's Surya Gangadharan ahead of President Hu Jintao's visit to India in November 2006 -- be recalled before communicating the dates for his visit to Beijing. Sun has since been replaced by Zhang Yan who has served as China's arms control chief.

Clearly, India has reactivated its China initiative in recent months. Some observers believe this activity is linked to the India-US nuclear deal's current residence in limbo. After 23 months, the India-China strategic dialogue was activated in December, the first time since January 2006. Both defence ministries too exchanged notes in November after a substantial hiatus; there was, of course, also the much ballyhooed India-China military exercises in Kunming last month, a first in its defence histories.

Trade is booming and has been pegged at $34 billion in the period January to November 2007, though India confronts a dismaying trade deficit ($9.02 billion). Both China and India are deeply worried about the developments in Pakistan, and its potential to spill over to Kashmir and Xinjiang provinces. Yet, despite the current convergence of some strategic interests, a trust deficit continues to dog India-China relations.

Both sides have been eloquent about heralding 'a relationship that will transform the world' -- one Chinese diplomat even resurrected 'Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai' at a luncheon for the visiting Indian media on Sunday. Dr Singh's three-day visit make stabilise relations, but may not effectively bridge the deep chasm of mistrust. India and China will continue to be wary neighbours for some more time to come.