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CHINA AND INDIA ON A NEW THRESHOLD? The Indian Prime Minister's Visit to China June 2003



Paper 717                                                       17.06.2003

by Dr Subhash Kapila

This article may please be read in conjunction with this author’s earlier article “China at the Crossroads in South Asia”, SAAG Paper No 703 dated 02-06-03. 

Introductory Observations: The Indian Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to China in end-June 2003 has raised both hopes and misgivings. These two elements represent the two ends of the spectrum that spans China-India relations. The hopes and euphoria arise from the prospects of increased economic cooperation, trade and commerce, which has already taken place and provides promising prospects. 

Indian misgivings and distrust of China arise from strategic perceptions of China not only at the Governmental plane but also in the hearts and minds of Indians. Enough stands analysed of the strategic divergences between China and India by the media as a prelude to the visit. What is of significance in the strategic dimension is not that India or Indians fear China today, but the strategic mindset imposed on Indians by China’s military actions which has generated a deep distrust of China. The two events  which are deeply etched on the India psyche are: (1) China’s 1962 aggression against India to strategically humiliate India, and (2) China’s build-up of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile arsenal perceived to be prompted by China’s intention to strategically destabilize India. 

Admittedly, the two major determinants of foreign policy are security and economic interests of a nation, but what requires pondering is whether economics can overtake national security interests. The Cold War era and events thereafter amply indicate that even in international relationships where economics has predominated, there too, the underpinnings of policies have been strategic. 

Therefore, it would be prudent for both China and India to pay serious attention to the strategic dimensions of China-India relationship, because the economic dimension has already an in-built momentum which will increase trade and commerce. Correspondingly, it can be safely stated that there is no momentum or in-built dynamics which will carry forward China –India relations in the strategic dimension. More so in the important field of removing Indian strategic distrust of China. Here, the ball lies entirely in the Chinese court, and it is China alone that has to generate policies which should aim at strategic confidence building in India. 

The Indian Prime Minister’s visit to China offers a unique opportunity for China to put  China-India relations on a new threshold, by emphasizing the strategic over the economic and cultural fields. 

Indian Bench-marks for China for this Visit and the Attendant Symbolism: Surely, a lot of ground-work would have taken place between China and India for this visit and the intended significance that should emerge from it. 

In terms of India’s intentions to improve and add content and meaning to China-India relations, the following stands stressed at the Governmental level:

* “India and China are not a threat to each other and both the countries are trying to resolve the complex boundary issue in a mature and Asian civilisational manner”. (India’s Defence Minister, George Fernandes, Jan 2003)

* Fernandes further added on the above occasion that “we expect China will also discharge its responsibility and accommodate our interests and reciprocate the spirit in which we are conscious of Beijing’s sensitivity on certain issues”.

* India’s Foreign Minister, Yashwant Sinha at the "Asian Security and China in 2000-2010", Conference in January 2003 stated; “Reliable and widespread reports of Chinese nuclear and missile proliferation to Pakistan cause deep concern. The Chinese position on issues such as Sikkim and India’s candidature for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council sows doubts. There is also a sense of disappointment over the pace of improvement of relations.”

* Having expressed India’s disappointments with China over specific issues, the India Foreign Minister at the same forum emphasized: “India’s approach to relations with China would remain forward looking and infused with a sense of optimism” and further that “India’s policies will not be based on fear of Chinese power nor envy of China’s economic achievements. They will be based on the conviction that a prosperous India is inevitable. So is a strong and prosperous China”.

From the Chinese side, nothing substantial in terms of intentions has emerged in any statement since Jan 2003 and even during Indian Defence Minister’s visit to China in April 2003.The Chinese continue to lay more emphasis on rhetoric than substance. The convergence being stressed are on cooperation in combating global terrorism and the need for multi-lateralism. 

Surely, the Indian Prime Minister is not going all the way to Beijing to discuss counter-terrorism and multi-lateralism, nor to stress as the Chinese do of "thousands of years of Sino-Indian co-operation". That is a historical farce because no political exchanges of substance took place. Cultural exchanges between China and India took place only in the hey-day of Buddhism; all that ceased with the advent of Islamic conquerors sway over India. 

China believes a lot in symbolism and the Indian Prime Minister's visit to Beijing in June 2003 should be exploited by China to make deep symbolic assertions in the strategic dimension, and these could be:

* China supports and insists that India should be made a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council.

* China asserts that Sikkim is an integral part of India.

* China asserts that it considers India as the regional power in South Asia and that all neighbouring South Asian countries would be well advised to adjust to the realities of the natural strategic asymmetry that exists in South Asia.

The above should be the Indian bench-marks for China to indicate its shifts in policies towards India and provide the basis for assessing China’s future intentions. None of these impinge on China’s strategic stature or interests. Nor are the above assertions predicated to the Sino-Indian boundary dispute. Undoubtedly, these are hard choices for China to make, when for 50 years or so China has been wedded to policies of strategically de-stabilising India. India despite 1962 and Sino-Pak nuclear weapons cooperation has never ever indulged in de-stabilising policies towards China. 

Contemporary strategic developments leave no choice for China but to face hard choices in South Asia and these stand analysed in this author’s earlier article, referred above. 

Conclusions: China and India crossed the threshold of peace to political and military confrontation in 1962, though China could be said to have done so when it militarily occupied Tibet in 1950. The strategic realities today dictate more for China than for India to once again cross the dividing line and put China-India relations on a new threshold. 

China and Chinese perceptions of India need to recognize that:

* The biggest contribution of Sino-Indian conflict and confrontation has been to the Indian polity. The Nehruvian concepts of Indian state-craft have thereafter stood consigned to the dustbin of history.

* Perceptions of the “Indian people” count much more in terms of China-India relations than any Government formulations and it is their psyche that China has to assuage.

* India no longer holds China in fear nor of a China-Pakistan strategic collusion against India. 

South Asia no longer permits triangular political equations, a particular obsession with Chinese leaders fixations in balance of power configurations. South Asia has strategic space for only a China-India duet- a new threshold of mutual accommodation of competing strategic interests and respect for each others strategic sensitivities. 

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email <drsubhashkapila>)