By Rupakjyoti Borah (India)
The visit of the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India between December 15 and 17 generated much euphoria in India and across Asia. China and India are two of the fastest growing economies in the world and their growing importance in international affairs is becoming increasingly apparent. A bevy of international leaders to India have visited India this year starting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in late July while American President Barack Obama visited India in the first week of November. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was in India between December 4-7.
Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit came in the backdrop of China adopting an increasingly aggressive posture in Asia. The recent spat with Japan near the disputed Senkaku islands reflect China’s growing assertiveness. The rising tensions in the Korean peninsula have only added fuel to the fire, where China has refused to castigate North Korea over its shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in late November. Many Indian observers have alleged that China has adopted a so-called “string of pearls” strategy of encircling India by building naval bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India, where he was accompanied by a 300-strong business delegation, kicked off with Indian and Chinese companies inking deals worth $16 billion, dwarfing the $10-billion worth of contracts signed between American and Indian companies during the recent visit of the American President Barack Obama. The two sides have set an ambitious new bilateral trade target of US $100 billion by 2015 and to address India’s growing trade deficit with China, the two countries have agreed to promote greater Indian exports to China.
In a welcome development, both the countries have reaffirmed that there is enough space in the world for both India and China to develop. In the recent times, India has moved increasingly closer to the US and to countries like Japan given their shared apprehensions about China. President Obama’s stopover in India during his tour of the Asian democracies, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea in early November, signals the rising importance of India in the American strategic calculations. In an interesting development, Japan’s new defence policy guidelines released last week paint China as a bigger threat than its cold-war enemy Russia.
Another highlight of Premier Wen’s visit was the starting of the telephone hotline between the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese Premier. In another positive step, India’s state-run Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has decided to introduce Chinese as a foreign language in schools under its jurisdiction from the next academic session while China has lauded India’s efforts to revive the historic Nalanda University and pledged a contribution of US$ 1 million for the same. In the days of yore, Nalanda was an important seat of learning for students from across Asia and many famous Chinese travellers like Fa-Hien and Hieun-Tsang visited Nalanada.
However, on the flip side, during this visit, China and India could not resolve many of the pressing issues plaguing their ties. First, unlike President Obama and French President Sarkozy, China chose to be ambiguous on the issue of India’s quest for a seat in the UNSC (United Nations Security Council) and refused to openly back India. Second, India’s protests over the issuing of stapled-visas by China for the residents of Jammu and Kashmir, as opposed to regular visas for people from other parts of India, went unheeded. There was no forward movement on the vexed border issue as well. The 2,520-mile frontier between India and China is the only one of China’s land borders that has not been demarcated. India also refused to include a reference to China’s sovereignty over Tibet and the “ One China” policy in the joint statement.
However, this is not to suggest that the relations are only a story of mistrust. There are many areas where India and China have been cooperating with each other.
First, trade is obviously an important aspect of India-China ties. China is India’s second largest trading partner. The total bilateral trade between India and China is set to exceed US$ 60 billion this year. Recently, India’s Reliance ADAG (Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group) has signed a contract worth $8.3 billion with China’s Shanghai Electric Co Ltd (SEC) for buying power generation equipment.
Second, India and China are cooperating in international forums like BRIC(Brazil, Russia, India and China) and in the field of climate change negotiations. Mention must be made of the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change summit which saw unprecedented cooperation between India and China, since then dubbed as the “Copenhagen spirit”.
Third, the two countries have common interests in countries like Afghanistan and in the fight against terrorism. While India is worried about the spillover effect of the reemergence of Taliban in Afghanistan particularly for its province of Jammu and Kashmir, China is worried about the unrest in Xinjiang given its proximity to Afghanistan.
However, there a few areas where the two countries need to pull up their socks.
First is people-to-people ties. While the two countries are neighbours, very few Indians actually travel to China and vice-versa. Tourism could be a major revenue earner for both the countries. Chinese tourists would be interested in Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India while Indians could visit Hindu religious sites Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar.
Second, the two countries could think of developing road links to increase trade. Although a World-War II era road, the Stilwell Road exists between India’s Northeast to Kunming in China through Myanmar, this has been lying unused. This road could be reopened, which will also spur the development of India’s remote Northeast.
Premier Wen’s visit has laid the foundation for the next stage of China-India ties in which rising economic complementarity is sure to offset strategic divergences. However, it also made it aptly clear that China is in no hurry to support India’s entry into the P-5 and to settle the boundary question. Obviously, it prefers to keep the Indians on the backfoot.
Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka, India, he was also a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge in 2009, exclusive for ORIENTAL REVIEW.