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CHINA AND INDIA CROSS THE THRESHOLD: Indian Prime Minister's Visit to China June 2003.


Paper 728                                                       30.06.2003

by Dr Subhash Kapila 

This is another perspective of PM's Visit to China-Director

(Contextual background for this paper can be found in the analyses of this author in his preceding papers.: (1) China at the Crossroads in South Asia Paper No 703 dated 02-06-03. (2) China and India on a New Threshold? Paper No 717 dated 17-06-03)

General Background: South Asia in the second half of June 2003 presented intriguing contrasts, in terms of events pertaining to India's adversaries. Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf was in the United States being fawned over in America's episodic relationship style with Pakistan. At the other end of the globe, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was on a week long invitation tour of China. The contrast was also more marked because the Pakistani General's avowed aim was to seek a more stable and enduring relationship with the United States. On the other hand China and India were engaged in serious deliberations to add content and substance to their long drawn out confabulations through bureaucrat-level annual meetings of Joint Working Groups.

In a pre-visit review of the Indian PM's visit to China, this author in his paper "China and India on a New Threshold?" (Paper No. 717 dated 17-06-2003 had concluded that " 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".

If this is the prism through which China-India relationship has to develop in the future, then what the Indian media played up in terms of controversies over Tibet and Sikkim statements, and who gained and who lost politically, was an inadvisable exercise. Foreign relations initiatives and their outcome cannot be instantly audited like making instant coffee.

In foreign relations, initiatives take time to mature and ripen and then can judgments be made. But what can be analysed and judgments passed on is whether the "trend in the making" has the potential or has in it the seeds of germinating towards forward movement of relations. With the above view point, it can be analysed that with the Indian Prime Minister's visit to China, both China and India have crossed the threshold and could be on the verge of a more substantive relationship.

Some aspects which have not emerged  adequately in media analysis with their obsession with Tibet and Sikkim hair splitting are set out below.

Pragmatic Realism Prevails Over Sentimentalism: A welcome trend that has emerged in India's approach to India-China relationship is that unlike in the past, pragmatic realism now prevails over sentimentalism. During the entire visit, the Indian PM's statements and those of the Indian Foreign Minister and Indian Defence Minister  earlier this year were devoid of the effusiveness of the "Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai" mindset. This would enable a more effective search for a China-India relationship after a realistic appraisal of contemporary strategic and economic factors. Such analyses could also throw up areas in both fields where respective national interests could be mutually accommodated.

China-India Relationship in the Future and the Strategic Factor: It can be ruled out from an estimative analysis of the future of a China-India relationship, that China and India cannot develop a strategic partnership. The national interests of both countries are competing and intensely competing in South Asia.

Further, any China-India strategic partnership is dependant on two other sets of relationship, namely, the China-Pakistan relationship and the China-US relationship. The Pakistan-USA relationship does not enter these equations substantively despite Pakistan being a nuclear weapons power. What is of critical importance is how the United States and China as the two external intrusive powers in South Asia view the emergence of India as the regional power and a key global power.

The United States, while continuing to molly-coddle Pakistan has explicitly asserted that India is a major power and an emerging key global power. Influential circles in USA and think tanks have emphasized that an USA-India strategic partnership should be striven for.

China, in contrast, has not made any such assertion, neither in  the past, nor during the Indian PM's current visit. Interlocutors from China, have privately however conceded that China is willing to concede the role to India and Japan as  major Asian powers.

Of particular significance to India in the context of China-India relations is the temperature of China-US relations. United States has already taken cognizance of this and hence her explicit assertions. China, while implicitly taking cognizance of this factor, has yet to explicitly assert so. It is wrong on the part of some Chinese analysts to assert that India is not equipped or capable of playing the "India Card" in the US-China-India context as China did playing the "China Card" in the USA-Soviet Union-China context.

Reverting back to the present analysis it can be stated that China has crossed the threshold in the China-India relationship when during the Indian PM's visit it agreed to:

* Raise the level of China-India interaction on border issues from the bureaucratic to the political level, i.e. appointment of Special Representatives. In the case of India, the National Security Adviser would be the Special Representative.
* Agreement for joint China-India naval exercises moving from anti-piracy operations to 'search and rescue operations'. In China, anti-piracy operations are coast-guard responsibilities and hence their up-gradation to where the Chinese Navy could inter-act with the Indian Navy.
* Increase in military-to-military contacts between the Armed Forces of both countries as emphasized by China.

On the strategic front, therefore, China-India approaches would take the pattern of one step at a time in a measured and deliberate manner in terms of confidence building. But, that some steps have been taken is an indicator of crossing the threshold by China.

Pakistan Factor's Dilution in China's Perceptions of South Asia: China's strategic nexus with Pakistan that emerged post-1962 cannot be expected to evaporate overnight. China is likely to continue its nuclear weapons and missile supply linkages with Pakistan. 

China's strategic interests in Pakistan vis-a-vis South Asia and India stand well articulated and do not merit repetition. What does require mention is that China is also unhappy with Pakistan over a number of issues. Professor Michael Yehuda of the London School of Economics has listed the following on a BBC website:

* China opposed Pakistan's Kargil misadventure.
* China has not called for international settlement of Kashmir, not even under strong pressure from Pakistan to do so.
* China has not said but is opposed to use of nuclear weapons in any conflict situations in South Asia. (Therefore implicit in this is that the nuclear blackmail statements of General Musharraf can be said to irritate China)
* China is not happy with Pakistan's hosting of US military forces on its soil and their use of Pakistan's military bases.

China's stand on Kashmir commenced dilution somewhere in the mid-1990s due to the application of the 'self-determination' principles by the United States and Europe in the former Yugoslavia and its likely applicability to Tibet and Xinjiang in the future. The reality is that Kashmir stands greatly diluted today in Chinese formulations and its being a core issue for Pakistan, rubs Pakistan badly.

During the current visit, it is reported that both countries in their discussions steered clear of bringing the China-Pakistan strategic links to the fore. This maturity itself indicates that China-India relations have crossed the threshold due to the following reasons:

* India feels it is strategically strong enough to take care of any future threat arising from the China-Pakistan strategic nexus,
* India and China feel that the future of their relations and co-operation has to break-out of the strait-jacket of Pakistan fixations and predications.
* For India any forward movement on China-India relations will contribute to the further dilution of the Pakistan factor in China's South Asian policies.

China-India Economic Cooperation: The various initiatives unleashed during the Indian Prime Minister's visit to China in June 2003 are significant, especially the opening of the Sikkim land route for two way trade. More than the political significance, the future prospects are promising due to the following reasons:

* While initially it may be only local trade between the contiguous regions of Sikkim and Tibet, this will set the base for enlarged trade eventually.
* With Chinese projects of linking Lhasa with a railway line and improved road communications, trade is bound to increase through the land route.
* India's Eastern and North Eastern regions could economically benefit from such prospects.
* Bangladesh too could benefit from this opening and so also Indo-Bangladesh relations in consequence.

* More importantly, if land route trade can be replicated by China and India on the Western borders, India gets an alternative route entry to China's Xinjiang and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan totally. This would also provide options for new alignments of energy pipelines.

Some analysts have advanced an argument that land-route trade would open up India's sensitive regions to Chinese infiltration and creating security problems. If that be so then it would be a measure of India's own weaknesses in surveillance and manning of borders. Trade 'per se' is not a security threat.

India Needs to Retain a Strategically Vigilant Posture: India needs to keep the lessons of history in mind, even while improving China-India relations and removing mutual distrust and suspicions. The following needs to be borne in mind:

* Complacency must not set in on India's border-management with China.
* India's defence expenditures cannot be brought down due to reduction of confrontation on the borders.
* India's strategic assets acquisition programme cannot be curtailed or slowed done. That progammme is not China-specific but specific to India's emergence as a key global player with all the trappings of power that it entails.

 India must never forget that mutual respect and respect for each others sensitivities on respective national interests accrues only amongst equals in power potential.

International Reactions to Indian Prime Minister's Discussions in China: International reactions to the Indian PM's visit to China and its outcome has been predictable though interesting. 

Pakistan was highly critical and came out strongly with their comments even going to the extent of the Pak Foreign Ministry official spokesman criticising Prime Minister Vajpayee for misleading China on South Asian issues. To emphasise that nothing had changed, Pakistan maintained that Sino-Pak relations were on a different trajectory. These contradictory stands reflect the nervousness that Pakistan finds itself with the latest developments in China-India relations.

Russia officially welcomed the latest China-India developments. Their reaction has to be viewed in the context of their obsession with a Russia-China-India triangle. However, Russia must not forget that their widening contacts with Pakistan does not go unnoticed in India. Also as analysed in papers last year, this author has maintained that a Russia-China-India  axis is not an advisable strategic option for India.

As far as the United States goes, on current indications, no significant observations or reactions seem to have emerged. This could be attributable to three reasons: (1) It does not impact strategically on US national interests or strategic policies (2) USA views that no strategic partnership can emerge between China and India (3) USA stood adequately briefed both by China and India, and especially the latter, in terms of their forthcoming discussions and likely outcomes. Despite the above, it can be analysed that the United States and its think tanks will be scrutinizing each minute detail of what transpired and the future direction of China-India relations.

Concluding Observations: China and India can be said to have crossed the threshold in terms of their relations, as a result of developments arising from the June 2003 visit of the Indian Prime Minister.

At the Governmental level, unlike the media, there was no hype. Similarly, in the field of political and strategic analysis, no major 'break-through' was expected. What was being expected was some forward movement and some raising of the plane of Governmental inter-action. That has taken place including the enunciation of a more structured approach towards discussion of the border problem and accelerating the pace of negotiations.

Lastly, it can be surmised that the crossing of the threshold in China-India relations has been impelled to a great degree by China's re-appraisal of India after 1998 in the strategic field. It got further impelled by post 9/11 events, Afghanistan and lately the militarily subjugation of Iraq by the United States. It is not being suggested that China's forward movement in China-India relations has been done under strategic duress. Far from it. It has been done as both China and India have appreciated, what I said in my earlier paper, that both countries can find strategic space to accommodate each others competing national interests and sensitivities.

The Indian Prime Ministers visit to China, the attitudinal changes of China and the emergence of a new generation of leaders in China seem to be trying to find the strategic space mentioned above. 

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