China-India ties: Wen Jiabao in India – making nice slowly

Author:  Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International Associates

Embarking on his 2005 visit to New Delhi, Premier Wen Jiabao had noted that the India trip was the most important item on his international calendar that year.

In New Delhi, Wen and Prime Minister Singh proceeded to append their signatures to a groundbreaking set of political parameters aimed at solving their longstanding boundary question. For India, the parameters constituted a belated formal acceptance of the significant elements of the principles-based offer to boundary dispute resolution that had first been tabled by Zhou Enlai in New Delhi almost 45 years to the day of the 2005 meeting. In turn, Premier Wen formally conceded the hitherto disputed border state of Sikkim as being a part of India. Along the way, the two sides elevated their relations from a ‘constructive and cooperative partnership’ to a ‘strategic and cooperative partnership’.

By mid-2009, however, bilateral ties were marked by their most significant extended phase of deterioration since full normalization two decades earlier. The Hu Jintao and Manmohan Singh exchange of visits in late 2006 and 2008, respectively, were the first summit meetings — going back to the late-1980s and involving a Chinese head of state — to show no forward progress on the boundary dispute. Further, in response to India’s (long-overdue) fortification of its shared frontier, and jingoistic coverage of the same in the Indian media, darker voices in Beijing insinuated that New Delhi needed to introspect about the causes of its poor relationship with neighbours. An equally subtle warning by Beijing’s ambassador in New Delhi in 1959 that India was incapable of sustaining a simultaneous deterioration of ties on both its eastern (China) and western (Pakistan) front had served as the ominous prelude to the downward spiral in relations, culminating in the war of 1962.

The putative trigger for the deterioration in ties this time around was Beijing’s displeasure at New Delhi’s casual diplomatic flirtation in May 2007 with a soft, ‘values-based’ containment initiative (Quad Initiative) that it presumed was directed at its strategic encirclement. Joint naval exercises conducted ostentatiously that summer in the Bay of Bengal by the four Quad powers plus Singapore, allegedly under NATO operational procedures and with facilitated access (for India) to the American military satellite system, added to the irritation. The real – though unstated – reason, however, was Beijing’s (exaggerated) foreboding of a pro-American tilt within the axis of coordinates of India’s foreign policy, arising from Washington’s extraordinary willingness to bend international non-proliferation norms and reinstate India as a country in good standing. That the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement materialized barely a couple of weeks after Premier Wen’s departure from New Delhi in 2005 added to a complex perceptional mix of being caught, both, diplomatically flat-footed as well as betrayed by India’s transactional approach to ties.

Trapped in a diplomatic bind — unable to swallow (or match) the temerity of the nuclear deal; unwilling to oppose it formally either for fear of incurring New Delhi’s wrath, Beijing chose to use the expedient pressure point of territory instead as a means to signal disaffection.  As quick as it had been to elevate boundary dispute resolution during the 2002-05 period, Beijing — in a pattern that has seen it calibrate its stance on outstanding territorial issues to the tenor of its overall bilateral relationship and perceptions of friendliness or hostility — was equally swift to pursue its claims inflexibly from mid-2006 onwards, on the ground and at the negotiating table.

Diplomatically, further to underline the disputed status of the eastern Indian frontier state of Arunachal Pradesh, it objected to the multilateral financing of a hydroelectric project there. To drill-in furthermore the meaning of the word ‘dispute’, and so bring to bear upon the Indians the irony of claiming Arunachal as an ‘integral’ part of India even as New Delhi bilaterally negotiates its final disposition vis-à-vis China, Beijing linked the status of Arunachal with that of Kashmir – doing so by quietly according visa entry to Kashmir-domiciled Indian citizens on a provisional basis only. Kashmir strictly speaking, it bears remembering, is an internationally recognized ‘dispute’, Jawaharlal Nehru himself having placed the issue on the Security Council’s lap under Chapter VI (peaceful settlement of disputes) of the UN Charter. More recently, as it has displayed preliminary signs of backing off its controversial Kashmir-related consular manouevre, Beijing has chosen to pay New Delhi back in similar ironic coin by treating the area of dispute in the western sector in its possession (Aksai Chin part of Kashmir) as a de facto integral part of Chinese territory. Evidently, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, although the Indians have failed to quite see it that way; Beijing’s incremental application of pressure on its collective neuralgic point, Kashmir, construed instead as the by-product of a nefarious Sino-Pakistani nexus.

By late-2009, however, judging the exercise in coercive diplomacy to have outlived its purpose — even if the signals had not all been accurately read, and, critically further, with the afterglow of the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal yielding little by way of shift in India’s strategic orientation and none in terms of military alignment, Beijing resolved to place the bilateral relationship on a more normal footing.

It is in this context of stabilizing and reversing the negative dynamic in bilateral relations that Premier Wen Jiabao paid a return 3-day visit in mid-December to New Delhi. Though little of a politically salient nature — a framework agreement towards boundary settlement; issuance of stamped, not stapled, visas;  reviving defence exchanges; dam-building in Tibet on cross-border rivers; Sino-Pakistani projects in (disputed) Pakistani-held Kashmir – was resolved, the visit did provide though the most forthcoming expression of Chinese goodwill towards India since Wen’s previous appearance in 2005. Undertaken in a spirit of ‘managing differences, maximizing opportunities’, second-order economic and trade issues, notably barriers to market access in four key sectors of interest to New Delhi, were constructively addressed. In a refreshing change of tone, further, the unhindered freedom of navigation as per universally agreed principles of international law was mutually affirmed. Most importantly, a horizon of opportunity for Sino-Indian relations in 2011 was laid out, with Prime Minister Singh accepting an invitation to pay a second state visit to China later this year.

Whether this horizon of opportunity translates to a restoration of good faith in the practice of Sino-Indian relations in the year ahead remains to be seen. On balance, 2011 appears unlikely to be a breakout year for bilateral ties. Premier Wen’s expressions of warmth notwithstanding, the urgency within China’s foreign and security policy bureaucracy to repair ties remains a question. In the eyes of the Chinese leadership, meantime, Manmohan Singh lacks the qualities of a purposeful interlocutor — temperamentally incapable of unilaterally extending a hand of friendship to China in the successful tradition of his illustrious predecessors, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1954, 1988 and 2003 respectively. That said, exigencies of realpolitik should work to bring the two nations closer in 2011. For China, the need to mend ties with a significant (and amenable) neighbour at a time when its purposes, whether by intent or coincidence, have been widely questioned across the region; for India, the imperative to restore a key pivot of its multi-aligned diplomatic strategy so that a resumed upward spiral of increasing cooperation with all the major global power centres can beget a further consolidation of its cherished strategic latitude. Predicated as forward movement on the boundary question has been on the larger state of good neighbourly relations, progress — or lack of — in the Chinese and Indian Special Representatives’ parley in this regard during the early part of 2011, will be a key measure to determine the extent of repair in this bilateral relationship.

Sourabh Gupta is a senior research associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc and a contributor to EAF.

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