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What to expect from Wen Jiabao's visit

By Srikanth Kondapalli
December 10, 2010 16:41 IST
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Wen Jiabao with Dr Manmohan SinghDr Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao can use their great personal rapport to enhance relations between India and China, says China expert Srikanth Kondapalli.

As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao completes his tenure in 2012, his historical legacies would be weighed carefully. One of these will certainly be his policy towards India -- another rising country in the 21st century.

Wen Jiabao's visit to Delhi is primarily a reciprocal visit to his Indian counterpart Dr Manmohan Singh's visit to Beijing in early 2008. Both have met ten times in the last six years so far, with the last meeting at the 5th East Asian Summit meeting in Hanoi in October 2010, besides the major meetings at Beijing as a part of the Asia-Europe Meeting or the Copenhagen climate change proposals in late 2009.

The personal rapport between the two leaders is high and can be enhanced further with the operationalisation of a hotline agreed to recently. This has a chance for enhancing mutual understanding necessary to de-escalate tensions and reduce misperceptions.

In the backdrop of a series of events that triggered tensions between the two sides, -- military logistics improvement, preparation towards ballistic missile defence system, defence budget hikes, the Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang in October 2009, China's revival of its Kashmir policy, stapled visas to the Kashmir residents in India, denial of visas to higher level defence officials, etc -- this visit could lead to the much expected improvement in bilateral relations.

Premier Wen's previous visit to New Delhi in 2005 led to 'strategic partnership and ooperation' between the two, although in actual implementation such postulating hardly remained so in word or deed. Both sides have different expectations of the other and the only solution is resolution of disputes, reconciliation and harmonising of these expectations.

On the Indian side, the expectations during Wen's visit are that there should be speedy progress in the resolution of the border dispute, discontinuation of stapled visas, stop cooperating with Pakistan on the nuclear and ballistic missile issues, opening of the Chinese market and reduction in trade deficits and carrying forward on counter-terrorism measures.

Besides, India had extended its principled support to the Chinese candidature at the United Nations Security Council right from its inception in 1945 and even during the 1962 war. India now expects that China reciprocate and make a similar gesture. However, it appears that China is proposing -- as a part of a quid pro quo -- Indian compromises on both the border as well as the Tibet question.

While Barack Obama demanded Indian compliance with the United States position on Iran and Myanmar, the Chinese position is not acceptable as it touches the territorial integrity of India.

The Chinese expectations mainly focus on India giving up territories in Arunachal Pradesh (southern Tibet as the Chinese recently suggested), boycotting the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony (which South Block has ignored), reining in the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans (who were accused of internationalising the Tibet issue), free trade zone proposals, etc. As Premier Wen said at Hanoi in October 2010, 'To make the visit a productive one, we need to discuss and reach a consensus on some major aspects.'

While there is a modicum of consensus between the two countries at certain multilateral fields, differences on regional and bilateral issues have stalled both from overcoming a relatively stagnant relationship. Consensus then eludes the two leaderships on a number of issues and that will be the focus of discussions during Wen's visit.

Both have identical views related to the Doha round on trade and tariff reductions, the rising protectionism in the West, climate change proposals, energy security and the like, with sharp divergences on cross-border terrorism, border dispute, nuclear and conventional military modernisation aspects.

To be more productive, as Wen insisted, the visit and discussions ought to consider at a minimum the core concerns of the other. The fact that even after six decades of independent existence, both India and China are still striving to define and protect their perceived national identities, speaks volumes about the current state of relations. Yet, this gesture and re-iteration by the two premiers will re-assure the other.

With the recent visit of politburo member Zhou Yongkang to Delhi and subsequently the 4th Strategic Dialogue at the two foreign secretaries' level and the 14th Special Representative meeting on the border dispute, a more concrete expression on outstanding differences could be possible in the joint communiqué between Wen and Singh this month.

Image: China's Premier Wen Jiabao with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the 5th East Asia Summit in Hanoi on October 30. Photograph: Reuters.

Srikanth Kondapalli is a professor in Chinese Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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