Engaging China: Underscoring India’s Core Interests
Debasish Chaudhuri

Why is Premier Wen Jiabao’s Visit Now?

A return visit by Chinese Premier was due for over two years since Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh visited China in January 2008. China’s assertive policies could be said to have become more visible after the successful conclusion of Beijing Olympics in August 2008. It is also well known that in the wake of Mumbai terrorist attacks Chinese government towed the Pakistani discourse on the issue. Last year number of contentious issues between the two nations created increased levels of dissonance. Year 2010 started on a good note with conclusion of Defence Dialogue- the year is also being celebrated as the 60th year of establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and New Delhi as part of which President Pratibha Patil visited China in end May this year. However, any positive resonance expected this year was lost when China added another dimension to existing stapled-visa issue by rejecting visa to Lt Gen B.S Jaswal, GOC-in-C Northern Command for visit to Beijing as part of Annual Defense Dialogue. This is a clear shift from China’s earlier position on Jammu and Kashmir in favour of Pakistan. In fact China’s relations with Pakistan have increasingly been a challenge for India to improve bilateral relations with the former.

Further, China appears to be feeling uneasy over growing Indo – US strategic partnership; this has been so since the signing of Indo-US Defence Framework Agreement of July 2005 and then the signing of civil nuclear deal. After the Malabar series of joint naval exercises in 2007 China had issued a demarche to participating nations including India. Potential of U.S.-India alliance backed by US attempts at reasserting in Asia disturbs China.

Also, China becomes proactive in improving relations with its southern neighbour especially when any US president makes a trip to India. It is possible that in consideration of President Barack Obama’s visit to India, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed his desire to make a trip to New Delhi during his meeting with Indian Prime Minister on the sidelines of the East Asian Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Summit in Hanoi on October 29.

Larger Context of the Visit

Meeting between the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in December 1988 is generally seen by many as a defining moment of Sino-Indian relations. Despite several waves of change in the international order - from bipolarity of the Cold War era to America centric unipolarity to the emergence of multi-polar order with declining sole super-power and rising China, India has been trying to handle its relations with China within the framework evolved in the 1988 meeting between the leaders of the two countries. Many in India feel that there is a need to improvise a new framework to reconcile with global interests of China as an international player and India’s growing aspirations.

Since last year there have been following changes noticeable in China’s foreign policy:
Chinese leadership has been gradually moving away from Deng’s advice of hiding capacities and biding time. They have realized that in order to bind the fragmented and pluralistic social forces of the contemporary China with nationalistic sentiments it is necessary to overtly demonstrate comprehensive national strength.
PLA is becoming more influential in the decision making process in the foreign policy. Since the present Chinese leadership is mostly from non-military background, they need to control PLA more effectively.
In the early reform period, China’s official policy under Deng’s leadership proposed to resolve territorial and marine disputes with neighbouring countries “through consultation by putting the interests of the whole above everything else, so that the disputes will not hamper the normal development of state relations or the stability of the region”. Normalization of Sino-Indian relations also was initiated on the basis of this premise. It appears now that China is not in a mood to resolve disputes with its neighbours on the basis of “equal consultation, mutual understanding and mutual accommodation”. In fact it is becoming more assertive across all Asia, be it South, SE or East Asia.
As a consequences China’s neighbours who are dependent politically and economically on China are feeling uncomfortable over China’s growing assertiveness particularly they see this as change from its declaration of peaceful rise.

Progressively, the areas of convergence between the two countries have been shrinking.

Chinese Conundrum

China is completely bewildered by the cacophony of Indian media particularly its capacity of impacting public opinion which in turn has a great influence over political decision makers. The freedom Indian media enjoys and its anti-establishment posture has made the authoritarian Chinese leadership uncomfortable. But the way Chinese official press especially the Global Times interprets China related news in the Indian newspapers, journals and TV channels indicates deliberate attempt to play down independence of Indian media in the backdrop of its own controlled media signified in the manner it has blocked internet and media in China over Nobel prize to Liu. Such a behaviour to an extent reflects their ignorance about how media and other institutions function in a democratic country. According to some Chinese, Indian public are now far more anti-Chinese than before and it is often considered that media complicates China’s position to deal with India diplomatically.

According to the Stockhlom International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) findings, the Global Times represents the most hard line nationalistic views and influence on foreign policy matters. Many stories it publishes aim to consolidate adverse sentiments against India and some other countries.

After Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee awarded the honour to Liu Xiaobo this year, the Chinese media targeted Norway. It clearly indicates that China has severe lack of understanding of how institutions can perform independently in democratic countries. China has claimed that Liu Xiaobo is a criminal and called the award “an arrogant showcase of Western ideology”.

In last two months China used all its diplomatic clout to stop countries from attending the Peace Prize Ceremony at the Oslo City Hall. It even issued demarche to all countries asking them to boycott the event. China has to understand that India cannot accept this kind of directive from other country. India has done well to disregard China’s remonstrations on the issue.

Each Other’s Leverages

Access to its market has long been used as China’s leverage against countries like the US, Japan, Taiwan and other countries. It is well known that China intentionally creates a situation which helps it maintain trade imbalances with other countries. The manner in which China restricted exports of rare earth material to Japan during the fishing boat row; it became more evident that economic inter-dependence is hardly an option to resolve problems “left over by history”.

But India’s trade deficit with China has resulted from over dominance of raw materials in exports. Sino-Indian economic relations remain asymmetric. In fact, India is becoming increasingly dependent on China in the field of machinery and equipment, and infrastructure development. In the long run it is India’s burgeoning market which China is eyeing for its manufactured products. Already there is a discernible rise in manufacturing costs in China. India needs to overcome the trade imbalance and take steps to build counter-leverages against China.

India’s greatest strength is that it is far ahead in terms of political development, whereas China is yet to initiate the process in that direction. The communist leaders of China still prefer monologue and are reluctant to have a dialogue with their own people.

In addition, China has committed serious violations of fundamental rights in Tibet and many other bordering areas of the country in the name of people’s war, people’s democracy and development. China should not have any illusion that its actions in Tibet and Taiwan are justifiable by its avowed principles of peaceful co-existence. It is the demand of globalization that the PRC should accept to live peacefully with its own “others” in Tibet and Xinjiang as well as its compatriots of Taiwan.

Agenda for Discussion

Of late there are so many issues of contention between the two countries that the two Prime Ministers need to review the fundamental principles on which the countries would engage each other in future.
Strategic cooperative partnership between the two countries should be defined beyond rhetoric.
Healthy bilateral relations have to be a two-way traffic. India should command respect and reciprocity in every aspect of relations with China.
As China has its core area of interest in Tibet and Taiwan, India has its own in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. This has been articulated by our External Affairs Minister in Wuhan meeting of Russia-India-China trilateral grouping. Clearly, this needs to be re-emphasised during the forthcoming meeting. A clear message should be given that India is quite capable of defending these core interests.
Chinese decision of issuing of stapled visa to Indian citizens in Jammu & Kashmir is a sheer violation of diplomatic norms. There are indications that China may be willing to address this issue.
India has rightly suspended all defence exchanges with China after it rejected visa to Lt Gen Jaswal. Restoration of relations between the militaries of the two countries is possible when China shows its real interest in that direction.
Stapled visa issue, rejection of visa to Lt Gen Jaswal and Sino-Indian defense exchanges, and Chinese perception of Jammu & Kashmir need to be dealt separately.
It needs to be impressed on China to refrain from mixing too many disjointed issues and complicate the crisis prone relations between the two countries. Chinese demarche on Nobel Peace Award ceremony is the latest instance where it combined bilateral relations with other contentious issue which is basically China’s internal matter.
Though China denies, there has been a steady change in Chinese position on Jammu & Kashmir in recent years. If China really considers that Jammu & Kashmir is an issue of contention between India and Pakistan, it needs to stop playing a partisan role on this matter.
India is well aware of Pakistani intention of suppressing the aspiration of peoples of Gilgit-Baltistan region of the POK by allowing Chinese presence there.
Even Jammu & Kashmir’s disputed status neither gives any justification of Chinese involvement in the POK nor reasons to increase the number of Chinese militia-cum-construction-workers in name of infrastructural development.
A trip to Pakistan is also included in Chinese Premier’s itinerary. Indian officials need to brief the Chinese leader about the dysfunctional nature of Pakistan politics and its nexus with the international terrorism.

Other issues of mutual concern like climate change, the construction of dams on the Brahmaputra River on the Chinese side and other trans-border water disputes, disaster management, international terrorism, energy security and food security are also expected to be discussed during the visit.

Conclusion

Premier Wen is a soft spoken, down to earth, honest and bold man – the human qualities that is getting rarer among the political leaders of our time. For over a decade he has been working hard to develop good relations among nations. Wen Jiabao’s previous visit to India made a clear breakthrough in developing strategic cooperative partnership. During his coming visit Chinese premier is expected to move positively on the issues discussed above and give a proper direction to Sino-Indian relations as pronounced in “A Shared Vision for 21st Century of the People’s Republic of China and India”, a document signed by the Prime Ministers of the two countries in January 2008.

The forthcoming visit of China’s premier is another opportunity for India to reiterate its core interests. Indian side is also expected to brief China on Obama’s visit to allay any misapprehensions on China’s part. China remains the most important neighbour and it is in the interest of both India and China to avoid conflict. National interests of both the nations are centered on economic growth, peace and security and welfare of their people. Thus political wisdom is needed to diffuse the dissonance between the two nations and craft new ways to build on areas of convergence.

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