China: Straws in the wind Wen’s December visit will be crucial

BY H K Dua : For quite some time, India and China have been at odds with each other and have watched their relations turning from bad to worse.  The downward slide in relations between the Asia’s two neighbours has caused concern to all  those who believe that it is not necessary for the two neighbours to continue living in hostility.

The way things were going out of hand recently both in Beijing and Delhi could lead to serious consequences for stability in a region where one-fourth of the humanity lives with the hope of  a better future and a respectable place in the world.

Last month’s East Asian summit in Hanoi provided the Prime Ministers of the two countries an opportunity to begin an exercise to explore ways to restore mutual trust between the two countries and begin tackling the issues that are keeping the two nations apart, sitting uncomfortably in adversarial postures.

Some positive signs, even if faint, have emerged from the Hanoi meeting between Dr Manmohan Singh and Mr Wen Jiabao.  They have asked their senior  officials to sit together during the next few weeks and make an effort to tackle each other’s concerns and if possible allay mutual doubts that have been piling up lately. If nothing else, the officials are supposed to find ways to remove some irritants that have deepened mistrust between the two nations.

The idea both Prime Ministers chose to subscribe to at Hanoi was simple: the two Asian nations set to emerge as major powers of the 21st century should have the maturity to resolve their problems amicably and to mutual satisfaction. The two Prime Ministers avoided getting into detail but in a manner befitting statesmen agreed to try arresting the recent deterioration in relations.

A day before he met Wen Jiabao, Dr Manmohan Singh set the tone by pointing out in a public lecture that there was enough space in this big wide world for both India and China to grow together. Mr Wen Jiabao seemed to be sharing this sentiment at the meeting of the two Prime Ministers.

Dr Manmohan Singh did not, however, hide Indian concerns at the strange position China has lately taken on Jammu and Kashmir. He did not have to spell out, but clearly it was a reference to China’s choosing to staple visa for residents of J & K which amounts to questioning Indian sovereignty over the State.  It also tended to raise an objection to China’s stand over Ladakh and  its activities in Gilgit and Baltistan in the PoK.

Some of these issues, will be discussed by the officials during the next few weeks as mandated by the two leaders.  Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao will be going to Beijing in the middle of this month. Prime Minister’s Special Representative, Mr Shankar Menon, will be visiting Beijing towards the end of this month. Their talks will prepare the ground for the visit of the Chinese Prime Minister to New Delhi in December for fairly crucial talks with Dr Manmohan Singh.

Another indicator of an attempt to add some warmth in the relationship is the recent visit to Delhi of the Zhou Yougkang, who is one of the senior members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politbureau, to attend the 60th anniversary of India-China relationship. Mr Zhou said China’s development was an opportunity, not a threat, to India. His speeches in India have been reported in detail in the People’s Daily back home. During his private conversations with senior leaders he is believed to have stressed the need to remove irritants in the relationship.

It remains to be seen whether positive signs thrown up by the Hanoi meeting are just meant for effect aimed at stopping bickerings, or they really indicate a beginning of a thaw in  the relationship.

The situation in Pakistan reportedly came up for a mention at Hanoi but it is not clear how far China is ready to address Indian concerns about its thickening relationship with Pakistan, and its assertive presence in Indian Ocean. There are no signs to suggest China will reverse its policy on  South Asia that has a  bearing on India’s legitimate security interests in an area of immediate concern.

Why has China chosen to send positive signals by showing a desire,  to resolve various issues with India, or remove irritants, is not known.

There is no doubt that China, on way to becoming a big power,  has been assertive lately all across the globe, making its presence on the geopolitical scene, looking for minerals all over and showing its economic might to the US and other Western powers which are facing bad times with their economies.

It is also making it clear that  it certainly does not want the countries facing its Pacific coast  to become a part of an American design to encircle it. That it chose Japan of all its Pacific neighbours to send a hard message must have been deliberate.

Japan is the closest ally of the US, living under American umbrella. A tough message must also have been meant for other Pacific neighbours. In the recent face off between China and Japan’s arresting captain of one of Chinese boats  Beijing succeeded in showing its sheer outrage and muscle and to convey that no one should mess around China  by playing a part in the encirclement game.

In geopolitical chess nations — certainly China — send different messages in different directions. It is possible the Chinese may have come to the conclusion — although warily —  that India is too big a country to be a part of any encirclement game despite its improved ties with East Asian nations and  its nuclear deal with the US. Sober commentators in China tend to think that India will not play other countries’ games vis-à-vis China.  Hence Wen Jiabao’s readiness to discuss outstanding issues or irritants in Delhi in December.

Mr Wen Jiabao’s term, as also of the present leadership in China, will come to an end in another couple of years. He, of all the present leaders, has been stressing political reforms in China. On relations with India he has been sounding more positive in approach than many other Chinese leaders. Not that the Chinese leaders are emotional in matters of foreign policy,  it could be he is keen to leave improved relations between the two countries as a sort of legacy before he lays down his office.

A clearer idea of how the Chinese want to travel along on improving relations with India will be known by the year-end by which time the senior officials would have met and done their bit for Wen Jiabao’s visit – which has become more significant after the Hanoi meeting of the two ministers.

Appeared in the Tribune on November 11, 2010