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