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India-China relations to get a boost

December 22, 2007

Central Chronicle
Thursday December 20, 2007

The two countries need to deepen mutual understanding and cooperation
and develop closer ties in all fields so as to create an atmosphere
conducive for a settlement of the boundary question.

If current thinking among the Chinese leadership in taking the strategic
and cooperative relations with India to a higher level is any
indication, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Beijing visit from Jan 12
may well mark another milestone in bilateral relations between the two
Asian giants. Even on the complicated boundary issue, which has defied
settlement for over half-a-century, some new suggestions and moves might
be on the table to help the established mechanism of special
representatives and working groups to break the deadlock in the
negotiations.

This is the impression gathered by this writer during a recent China
visit after interacting with a cross-section of the policy-making and
intellectual elite in the country, seriously desirous of improving
relations with India despite occasional misgivings. These arise mainly
from foreign-inspired reports and past utterances of some ministers in
Atal Behari Vajpayee's NDA Government about India becoming a partner in
the Bush Administration's China "containment" policy. Beijing tried not
to hide its concern and annoyance when recently it sent an official
demarche to the governments of the so-called "Quad"-India, Japan,
Australia and US- seeking to know what the proposed military engagement
among them in the Indian ocean, which led to massive naval exercises
were meant to be and against whom?

China is now more inclined to take relaxed view of the security scenario
in Asia and the role of the United States. With its growing economic and
military strength, China feels confident of defending itself and its
economic and strategic interests. The imagined threat from the "Quad"
also seems to have vanished with Bush -friendly governments in Japan and
Australia having been thrown out and the Communists and the rightist BJP
joining hands in India to oppose moves to form a strategic relations
with the US, with the Indo-US nuclear deal becoming an unfortunate casualty.

However, suspicions about US policies in Asia and its strategic
objectives still runs deep. The air has been partly cleared by the UPA
Chairperson Sonia Gandhi during her meetings with the Chinese leaders on
her recent China visit and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's interaction
with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Singapore. External Affairs Minister
Pranab Mukherjee had highly successful interaction with his counterpart
Yang Jiechi and Premier Wen and the intention was to unfreeze the
boundary talks and to deebunk foreign-inspired report about India
"ganging up" with the US against China.

Another reason is that President Hu Jintao and his team have got another
five-year term from the Party and feel much more confident about
initiating new policies without opposition from the old guar hardliners.
The faces of the new leaders, who will succeed them after five years and
be in command for ten years thereafter, have also been revealed. The
Chinese government has now emerged more cohesive, united and committed
to implementing the new economic and other goals set by the 17th
National Congress of the CPC. The leadership is now more equipped to
take policy decisions on its own and initiate moves to improve relations
with India without fear of annoying the hardliners.

This opens up opportunities for India to revive the many accords signed
and set about implementing them in cooperation with China which too has
to keep to its commitment.

The Dalai Lama issue also is an irritant and the Chinese argue that,
having given him asylum, New Delhi should have ensured that he did not
travel abroad and indulge in anti-Chinese activities and return to and
live in India. Even though the Dalai Lama has substantially modified his
stand and given up the demand for secession, the Chinese insist that the
spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists is engaged in activities aimed
at "splitting" the Motherland and sabotaging national unity. No amount
of explaining of India's stand about Tibet being an autonomous province
of China, satisfies the Chinese, who perceive a hidden US hand behind
his anti-China activities. Interestingly, even though President Bush
personally escorted the Dalai Lama to the joint session of the US
Congress, which conferred its highest honour on the spiritual leader,
the very next week he sent his Defence Secretary Robert Gates to Beijing
to discuss defence co-operation between China and the US. The visit
yielded an agreement on enhancing military ties between the two countries.

The Chinese leaders will accord a red carpet welcome to Dr Singh, whose
visit is regarded as a highly important event. Three agreements of more
or less routine nature are to be signed, but what is more important will
be the understanding reached between Dr Singh and President Hu Jintao on
steps towards normalization of the situation, including along the
unsettled Himalayan border. Since the Line of Actual Control is not
demarcated on maps and neither the Indian nor Chinese forces have a
precise idea of where it runs along the ground, incidents of aggressive
patrolling, sometime called intrusions, are bound to happen. Some Indian
experts argue that China wants to drive a hard bargain and keep India
guessing on the agenda during the border talks, when resumed. Beijing
wants to reassert its claim on the boundary and put psychological
pressure to extract concessions.

Disagreement over the perception of the LOAC had led to suspension of
the talks about delineating it in the Western and Eastern sectors.
Another joint working group has been set up to assist the special
representatives to prepare the guidelines for a settlement. Some
progress has been made, during these discussions and points of
convergence have emerged. The 11th meeting of the SRs and first meeting
of the expert mechanism on India-China river issues took place recently
in Beijing. The political guiding principles agreed to by the Special
Representatives and about which the former Chinese Foreign Minister had
raised some doubts, will be put back in place.

Beijing will intensify joint efforts under guiding political principles,
hoping that the two sides understand each other, make mutual adjustments
and concessions so as to arrive at an early agreement on a framework
which would be "fair, rational and acceptable to both sides" on
resolving the boundary issue.

The Chinese side argues that the two countries need to deepen mutual
understanding and cooperation and develop closer ties in all fields so
as to create an atmosphere conducive for a settlement of the boundary
question, which will entail taking hard decisions on give and take.

China would like to develop transport, trade, tourism and cultural links
across the eastern border (Arunachal Pradesh) to encourage freer
movement of traders, businessmen, scholars and visitors. Issue of
Chinese visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh may no longer pose any
problem. That would, indeed, be a significant step and may eventually
lead to Chinese recognition of the State as part of India, as was done
in the case of Sikkim, when the Nathu La trade route was thrown open
after over four decades. Development of cross-border trade and cultural
linkages would help remove mutual lack of trust and promote genuine and
a long-term understanding.

China considers the trade through Nathu La as "uninspiring" the volume
last year reached only 200,000 US dollars. The real issues inhibiting
trade are upgrading of the trade infrastructure on the Indian side and
negotiating a new protocol with China which will increase cross-border
trade. The total trade between India and China this year will be over
$30 billion and there is great scope for developing cross-border trade
which will be quicker and cheaper to transport. It is only 1,200 km from
Kolkata and Lhasa, but 4,400 km by see to Tianjin, the nearest port to
Baijing. Opening of trade routes through Arunachal Pradesh would
facilitate cross-border trade and reduce the price of merchandise to be
traded by both sides for the consumer. But, for this the Indian side has
to develop the border infrastructure, about which Defence Minister AK
Anthony has also complained. This is essential for defence, as well as,
economic and other reasons.

The Chinese side will be open to suggestions and proposals to improve
relations in all spheres - political, strategic, economic and cultural -
and it is for New Delhi to take the initiative. Beijing would also like
the two countries to take joint initiatives in world forums to protect
mutual interests. It is satisfied with the joint action taken by them at
the Bali meeting on climate change. It also desires greater Indian
involvement in the trilateral - Russia, India, China - to resist outside
pressures, build up political trust and strengthening cooperation in
combating terrorism, drug trafficking, energy security and resisting
pressures on developing countries.

Mutual defence ties also need to be upgraded, with greater interaction
among the armed forces and frequent exercises between the armies, navies
and air forces of the two countries to enhance mutual security and build
up trust. Therefore, to give bilateral relations a major thrust, both
countries need to make forward movements, build up understanding and
trust and remove suspicions which have impeded genuine friendship.

MK Dhar, NPA
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