India and China agree to step up mutual engagement

The recent visits of the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to India and Pakistan during the same week went off on predictable lines.

In India the visit has left behind somewhat better atmospherics leading habitual optimists to hope for better days ahead for the Sino-Indian relations; while  experienced analysts tend to believe that another opportunity to sort out the vital issues that have marred the relations between the two Asian neighbour over the years has been lost.

Both optimists and the analysts with bitter memories of the past, however, are in agreement that it is better to keep the Chinese engaged and New Delhi should avail of any opportunity to make it clear that India is ready to discuss any issue across the table but not at the cost of its national interest.

As it transpires, it is Wen Jiabao  who told Dr Manmohan Singh at Hanoi a few weeks ago that he would like to visit India for talks and see whether some prickly irritants in the relations could be removed so that the two nations could have more comfortable relations with each other. There was enough space for them in this wide world.

Few had thought that big issues like the boundary dispute and India’s serious reservations on relations between China and Pakistan would be resolved during the visit. No one believes that the boundary disputes, the worst of the divisive bilateral issues, can be pulled out from the back burner it has been consigned to by both countries. May be the status quo on the boundary questions suits both countries as neither is prepared for a give-and-take approach a settlement requires.

India has a parliament resolution suggesting that the Indian territory under Chinese occupation has got to be vacated. The Chinese too could be having problems within the present Communist party leadership which might be thinking it has no authority to part with any territory. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are going out of office in less than two years and no one knows how the succession issue will ultimately pan out towards the end of their tenure.

How relations between China and Pakistan have changed the security environment in South Asia figured at the talks.  But judging from the statements the Chinese Prime Minister has made in Islamabad the relations between India’s  northern and western neighbours seem to have further deepened, leaving intact for India a two-front situation to contend with.

Pakistan has in fact become China’s client state and not just an ”all weather friend” as the Chinese like to describe it.  Over the years Beijing has been liberally passing on nuclear and missile technology and  military hardware to Pakistan and is now underwriting its failing economy.

China, as a part of larger scheme is also using Pakistan for gaining access to the Arabian sea, mineral resources in Afghanistan and greater influence in Central Asia.

The Sino-Pakistan ties add another dimension to its stand on Jammu and Kashmir.  Lately there is vagueness about its  earlier position that it is a bilateral dispute to be sorted out by India and Pakistan themselves.

China’s denial of visa to our Northern Commander and stapling of visas for the  J and K residents amounted to questioning India’s sovereignty over J & K. India had to make it clear at a meeting at Wuhan that China ought to be sensitive about India’s concerns on J and K, just as India had been sensitive about Beijing’s concern over Tibet.

Wen Jiabao might have thought of the visa question as just an “irritant” but for India it is too serious a matter to be brushed aside. Some rethinking may be taking place in Beijing on stapled visas.

Differences on political issues notwithstanding, the Wen Jiabao-Manmohan Singh talks focussed on economic relations. The two sides  chose to step up annual  trade to $ 100 billion  in five years. China has agreed to find ways to buy more goods from India so that the balance of trade does not remain hugely against India.

The prospects which Wen Jiabao’s last visit to India threw up in 2005 may have got blurred, but he must have gone back with greater awareness of Indian concerns about the emerging regional and international scenario.

This might turn out to be Wen Jiabao’s last visit to India although the two agreed to step up annual bilateral engagement between the two countries.

Competent analysts are of the view that essentially the visit was aimed at arresting the decline in relationship during the last two years, removing “irritants” and letting  the new leadership in China decide its foreign policy after two years.

Essentially, India and China have come to agree that it is better to step up mutual engagement than make strident noises that add to mistrust.

– DNA, December 29th, 2010

World won’t wait for India

When domestic politics becomes intense, there is a risk of vital issues concerning foreign policy getting neglected. A vibrant democracy like India’s will always have some internal stomach-aches which can draw greater attention than the situation in the world outside.

A nation like India, poised to emerge as a major economic, political and military power of the 21st century, cannot afford to sit back and shut its eyes to what is happening elsewhere in the world.

During the last two years issues and controversies at home dominated the public mindspace. The general mood of cynicism that spread across the nation as well as the bitter acrimony that underscored the public discourse distracted the country and the political leadership from the tasks abroad.

After the ongoing Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are over, the country will get busy with preparations for the next parliamentary polls due in 2014. Already, much of the public debate about the Assembly elections is viewed in the context of what impact their results will have on the 2014 parliamentary polls.

The world, which is always changing, is not, however, going to wait for India’s next Lok Sabha elections to be over. Even in the next two years the situation in major parts of the world will have changed, demanding India’s continued attention, irrespective of what happens during the run-up to the 2014 polls.

Major nations of the world are going to see a few important changes. The present leadership in China led by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will have given way to a new leadership by the end of this year. Vladimir Putin will return to the presidency at the Kremlin to make it more powerful and govern Russia for at least six years.

In the United States, it will be known by the end of the year whether President Barack Obama gets a second term, or a Republican will capture the White House. It remains to be seen whether President Obama — if he gets re-elected — will give greater attention to Washington’s global policies than he has given during his first term. At the end of his first term, he is in a withdrawal mode.

Nearer home, the situation in Pakistan is in a state of flux and no one knows what is the shape of things likely to come in Islamabad, caught as it is in a triangular war between the civilian government, the army and the judiciary.

The situation in West Asia will, perhaps, become a major concern for New Delhi, considering that over 60 lakh Indians work there and a chunk of our oil supplies come from the Persian Gulf. So do the trades routes with the western hemisphere.

Already, the US has decided to toughen the sanctions regime against Iran —mainly because it is refusing to give up its nuclear bomb programme. Iran has even threatened to block the Straits of Hormuz in retaliation and in case it carries out its threat, it can lead to a flare-up in one of the most dangerous spots in the world.

Iranians are unlikely to succumb to the sanctions. Their economy depends on oil exports. They could divert most of their oil exports to China, which like Russia, is opposed to Western sanctions against Iran.

No one knows what the Israelis will do in this kind of a situation. They have a running rivalry with Iran in West Asia’s complicated politics where oil, religion, geopolitics and big power interests have brought about dangerous uncertainties. Also, Israel and the US hate to see Iran going ahead with its plans to develop nuclear weapons.

The Assembly elections or a run-up to the parliamentary polls in 2014 notwithstanding, India cannot simply watch with indifference the situation in the area so close to it.

Also when major powers like the US, Russia and China will be busy with their elections or changes at the leadership level, India can take initiatives unhindered to improve relations in its immediate neighbourhood. The big powers are too busy with their own pursuits at this time.

At present, the relations with South Asian neighbours are better than before. Even if the Teesta accord fell only because of Mamta Banerjee choosing to scuttle it, the relations between India and Bangladesh have vastly improved after Sheikh Hasina’s return to power in Dhaka.

Of particular significance is the recent improvement of relations with Myanmar. During the last three months three high-level visits to India by leaders of Myanmar — of the President, the Speaker and the Foreign Minister – have taken place. These were not courtesy calls from a neighbouring country, which has decided to go in for a reconciliation process at home, initiating democratic reforms and released Aung Saan Su Kyi. But it also decided to open out to the rest of the world, certainly to India. For India, having opted for the Look East policy, Myanmar can become a bridge with South-East Asia.

The relations with Nepal, which is of critical importance, have improved lately with Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai coming to power in Kathmandu. He will like to keep a balance when dealing with China in the north and India along its southern border, but is likely to keep Indian interests in mind.

Of crucial importance will be the relationship with China and Pakistan and the thickening ties between the two countries. The peace dialogue with Pakistan was going on smoothly until Islamabad got caught in political uncertainty following the “Memogate”. It can be resumed once it is clear who is to govern Pakistan.

Despite “irritants” — as Wen Jiabao would call these — making scary headlines, the India-China relations have been fairly on course, judging from the way the Special Representatives of the two countries tried to work out a framework for boundary demarcation in a slow process of the resolution of the border dispute.

Whatever the gloomy forecasts, a war between India and China is ruled out. Both countries have developed their military strength as also trade relations, although the trade balance with India is heavily tilted in favour of China.

There is no solution in sight about military and nuclear ties between China and Pakistan. Indian concern about this has been brought to the notice of the Chinese, but the only remedy for India is to grow its own military strength. At the same time, the policy should be to continue the dialogue with both — and these should go without interruption, until the cows come home. Hysterical noises and headlines do not make a constructive contribution to diplomacy.

India needs a vision for the 21st century and time to build its economy and military strength. The country also requires a consensus among major political parties on vital issues concerning foreign policy, security and terrorism. Such a consensus can be evolved despite the polemics that are going to mark the political landscape until the 2014 parliamentary elections.

– The Tribune, January 30th, 2012