Little for India on Chinese Platter
Amb Kanwal Sibal

Chinese PM Wen Jiabao’s visit has hardly done much to allay India’s fears about its hostile, powerful neighbour

Of all the visits made by P-5 leaders to India in 2010, that of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proved the least productive. At one level this was expected, as deep differences continue to divide India and China. At another, the visit was an occasion to make discernible progress on some outstanding issues for fostering optimism about the future. Wen Jiabao visited India last in 2005 in what, acknowledgably, was a substantial visit, with President Hu Jintao consolidating the bond in 2006. After that the relationship has developed ruptures that have remained unsealed despite return visits made to China by our Prime Minister and the President and bilateral confabulations in other forums.

The Chinese have, in fact, opened up old and new breaches in the relationship by aggressively re-iterating their claims on Arunachal Pradesh, and in particular on Tawang, questioning India’s sovereignty over J&K by fabricating the stapled visa issue even as they are entrenching themselves increasingly in POK, and engaging India in endless rounds of sterile discussions on the boundary issue. In this background if Premier Wen expressed interest in visiting India at this juncture it could be reasonably expected that he would bring something in his knapsack to reduce contentions.

Why would Premier Wen want to visit India at short notice. Some believe it is Chinese concern about the developing strategic ties between India and the US, and the fear that the US may rope India into encircling China, that prompted this visit. Others think the reform minded Chinese PM wanted to arrest the downward trend in the India-China relationship.

The fact that other P-5 leaders had visited or were visting India in quick succession might have goaded China to come too as otherwise China might lose in the powerplay taking place in its immediate neighbourhood. China has become India’s biggest trade partner and Chinese companies, especially in the telecom and power sectors, have major business opportunities in India’s growing market. Hence, commercial calculations spurred the visit, particularly as China is coming under pressure in western markets and needs to diversify. Finally, China has to be seen engaging India positively in order to give political room to pro-Chinese lobbies here to oppose the perceived westward lurch of the present government and press for a balanced Indian foreign policy.

The meagre results of Premier Wen’s visit call into question many of these assumptions. Is it that we don’t understand China’s mind, its calculations and its attitude toward us. Do the Chinese take India seriously as an adversary? Do they think tactical patch-ups and temporary palliatives are sufficient in dealing with us? Do they believe they have cornered and neutralized us through Pakistan as well as through the great economic and military gap they have created between themselves and us? Do they believe they can define the agenda of our relationship and steer us toward working within it?

On all key issues of bilateral contention Premier Wen made no concession. On the stapled visa issue he parried by suggesting that officials from both sides should discuss it further. The Chinese have created the damaging diplomatic fact of disputing our sovereignty over Kashmir that cannot be undone completely unless they formally acknowledge Kashmir as an integral part of India, which they will not do.
Even if the practice of stapled visas is discontinued they have signalled their position to Pakistan and the international community, and this challenge to India’s sovereignty, even if muted for now, can be revived in the future whenever opportune. We are rightly saying that further discussions are not needed and that the ball is in their court, but the Chinese have already scored the goal they wanted.

On terrorism Premier Wen did not express sympathy publicly for the families of the victims of the Mumbai carnage, even though all the other P-5 leaders did so expansively on site. While others demanded that Pakistan bring to justice the perpetrators of that terrorist attack, the Chinese PM remained silent.

His speech at the Indian Council of World Affairs(ICWA) also omitted any mention of terrorism, even though China feels the menace. The Joint Statement merely refers to relevant UNSC resolutions- a safe exit for China as it is already a party to them. When in Pakistan, however, the Chinese PM, in a cynical bid to release mounting pressure on its all weather friend, lauded Pakistan’s role in combatting international terrorism.

While other visiting leaders supported India’s candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, the Chinese PM confined himself to the patronizing formula of supporting India’s aspiration to play a bigger role in the UN, including in the Security Council, Naturally, there was no support extended for India’s membership of the various nonproliferation and technology denial regimes, which other leaders did.

On the boundary question Premier Wen was most negative. His ICWA speech conveyed the hard message that it would “not be easy to completely resolve the question” and that it will “take a fairly long time”. He disavowed the Joint Statement that speaks of an “early resolution”.

Having already resiled from the decision to delineate the Line Of Actual Control through exchange of maps, China is now sabotaging the mechanism of the Special Representatives. For how many years are they now expected to meet to find a solution to a problem that cannot be resolved “completely”? The intention behind setting up of a new working and coordination mechanism on border affairs is not clear. What is clear is that China intends using the border issue to pressure India in the years ahead.

Premier Wen tried to shift the focus of his visit to trade as that is not a contentious issue, though we have complaints about the mounting imbalance. A two-way trade target of $100 billion by 2015 has been set up, but unless China opens up its internal market to us in IT, agricultural products and pharmaceuticals, the current trade gap of $19.2 billion will expand further, making the situation unsustainable. China is creating a powerful business lobby in India which it will use to weaken the government’s will to react strongly to Chinese political provocations We have become more vocal about our concerns, whether on the question of China respecting our sensitivities in J&K, the water issue(on which the Chinese PM was verbally accommodative in his ICWA speech), Chinese presence in POK. or the omission of the standard references to Tibet and “One China” in the Joint Statement.

All in all, Premier Wen’s visit has reinforced, not removed, our misapprehensions about China’s intentions and policies toward India.
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Published in Bengal Post dated December 29, 2010

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