Moving in tandem

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

An attempt to gain a peace dividend by improving the atmospherics as well as the basics of the bilateral framework.

in Beijing

A QUANTUM leap towards a new zone of bilateral engagement is the most compelling image, even if it is only a qualitative impression, of the visit to China by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The new set of Chinese leaders, who held extensive talks with Vajpayee, have been quick to recognise the changing grammar of geopolitics across the Himalayas. This massive mountain range no longer separates the two countries in this age of space as the next frontier in international politics as also of cyberspace as the link that matters.

The effusiveness of China's goodwill towards India on this occasion had to be seen to be believed. Both the Chinese government and the country's strategic affairs community have sought to raise visions of a "win-win'' symphony of sentiment and substance. The India-related mood in official Beijing was summed up best by China Daily, which saw the latest dialogue as "a handshake across the Himalayas''.

Twice earlier, once during the period that turned out to be the fading phase of the Cold War and later during the nebulous early phase of the post-Cold War years, China reached out to India by welcoming its leaders in Beijing. Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao visited Beijing during that phase of transition in world politics. Each in turn helped raise new hopes and bright visions of better tomorrows in Sino-Indian ties. The Chinese leaders of those times, too, acknowledged the possibilities. In addition, all the three top leaders of the previous "generation'' of the Chinese establishment - Jiang Zemin, Li Peng and Zhu Rongji - visited India at different points of time, ahead of Vajpayee's latest mission. Jiang, who now remains the link between the previous "generation'' and the present one among the Chinese leaders, was a key interlocutor during Vajpayee's diplomatic endeavour. Despite such continuity and a certain historical backdrop, the new leaders in Beijing - Hu Jintao as China's President and also general secretary of the Communist Party of China, besides Wen Jiabao as Prime Minister - have regarded their dialogue with Vajpayee as a qualitatively different kind of diplomatic engagement. Indeed, his earlier tour of China in February 1979, when he was the External Affairs Minister, has been recalled in Beijing this time round as an event that rekindled Sino-Indian ties after a particularly dark hiatus.

What is the real message from the Sino-Indian political honeymoon at the present moment? In one sense, China appears determined not to let it degenerate into a vacuous reality in the long run. This fact is evident from the energetic way in which the present tense in the grammar of Sino-Indian ties is being projected in Beijing onto the radar screen of the future. The global context of the current Sino-Indian engagement is complex. At one level, the recent U.S. military `triumph' in Iraq and its uncertain fallout and the continuing Washington-led international `campaign against terrorism', have defined the contemporary background. At another level, China has taken considerable care to keep its current parleys with India along the basic bilateral track. As a result, even the Pakistan factor in the Sino-Indian strategic milieu has been kept within manageable limits at this juncture.

The international community, of course, has evinced considerable interest in the current surge in diplomatic bonhomie between Beijing and New Delhi. However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, has clarified that the possibility of incremental interaction among China, India and Russia flowing from the current Sino-Indian rapprochement, cannot be seen as any budding triangular alliance. According to him, the Sino-Russo-Indian paradigm (such as it exists) amounts to "no alignment''. On a different but related front, the latest Sino-Indian Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation itself is specific in underlining the fact that their new entente is not directed against any third country. The accent continues to remain on the bilateral.

A significant aspect of the Declaration that sets it apart from the results of previous summit-level parleys is that Beijing and New Delhi have now made it clear that neither country looks at the other as a threat. This terminology, which goes beyond the sentimental realm (given the baggage of recent history on both sides), has strategic overtones. On the whole, as Chinese sources point out, the attempt on this occasion is to underscore the commonalities between the two countries so that each can gain a definitive peace dividend by improving not only the atmospherics but also the basics of their bilateral framework.

Not surprisingly in this context, neither India nor China has allowed the Pakistan factor, which consists of a cluster of issues that enables China to "contain'' India through strategic means, to cloud the present dialogue that holds out promise for the future. In one sense, the Pakistan factor has been addressed in a deft manner in the new Sino-Indian Declaration, with both sides affirming that the present dialogue will not undermine their existing linkages, be they ones with strategic or other dimensions, with any of the other state-players on the international stage. At another echelon is kept alive not just the Pakistan factor but also the theory that India might be able and willing to join hands with the U.S. as a junior partner in a concerted bid to "contain'' China over time. China's self-confidence on this score is, however, brought home by the manner in which this question is addressed in Beijing. Authoritative Chinese sources indicated to this correspondent that Beijing is not really worried that American strategic planners might take India under their wings in an effort to "contain'' China at this stage. The reasons cited in this situation, even if only implicitly, are that China itself is actively engaged in a definitive strategic dialogue with the U.S. and that Beijing knows the art. Moreover, India and China have, for the present, contented themselves with their "respective'' efforts to reshape the fluid international political-economic order. There is no mention of a Sino-Indian joint initiative to bring about a multi-polar world into existence in the present circumstances.

With the Chinese leaders and their Indian interlocutors having virtually removed the international irritants from the dialogue process, the spotlight is as much on the hopes of a new dawn as indeed on disputes of a purely bilateral kind. This comes as no surprise, given the reality that the strategic affairs community in Beijing is still very conversant with, and alive to, the thesis of a Sino-Indian "protracted contest'' as outlined by John W. Garver. It is no different, too, with the story of "India's China War'' as propagated by Neville Maxwell.

HOWEVER, an attempt is under way here, at the political and academic levels, to explore the possibility of a "constructive'' and "cooperative'' relationship between China and its "civilisational'' neighbour, India. The idea is to reverse the paradigm of wasteful "rivalry'' that characterised a substantial part of the Sino-Indian relationship in the second half of the 20th century. It is in this context that China has now set its sights on constructive economic cooperation with India in the spheres of information technology and the like. Another area of agreement relates to the principle of Sino-Indian cooperation on development issues within the World Trade Organisation system. While these aspects reflect a proactive strategy of improving ties with India, China is equally keen to adopt a problem-solving approach as regards issues such as the overall boundary dispute, Tibet, Sikkim and the improvement of the political atmosphere for a sustainable bilateral engagement.

With the appointment of special representatives to address the overall border dispute, including the vexed question of maps showing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) involving the two countries, China reckons that the issue has been put on the fast track. The bilateral reaffirmation of faith in the principle of maintenance of peace and tranquillity along and across the disputed frontier is also taken as a positive development.

On Tibet, both the Chinese government and the strategic-academic analysts in Beijing are of the view that India has, for the first time, acknowledged fully China's absolute sovereignty over Tibet, whatever might be the quibbling on this issue behind the scenes within New Delhi's officialdom. It is not for nothing that official China has "appreciated'' India's new line on Tibet. Explaining the reason for a feel-good sense on this score, Wang Hongwei, a veteran of international relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says that India's earlier formulations on Tibet were not consistent with the Chinese Constitution. Prior to the issuance of the latest Sino-Indian Declaration, India had maintained that Tibet was an autonomous region of China. This was "quite different from the meaning in the Chinese Constitution''. With India now acknowledging that the Tibet Autonomous Region, the area so specified by the Chinese state, "is part of the territory of the People's Republic of China'', New Delhi has jettisoned its earlier ambiguity about the finality of Tibet being an intrinsic part of the PRC. "The problem is solved'' as a result of this new formulation, Wang emphasises.

Closely related to this aspect is New Delhi's explicit commitment not to let the Tibetans living in India, including the Dalai Lama and his entourage, to indulge in anti-China activities while remaining on Indian territory. As seen from Beijing, this commitment annuls the informal argument within India's officialdom that New Delhi had practically diluted its earlier recognition of the entire territory of traditional Tibet (Dalai Lama's "domain'') as an intrinsic part of historical China and not just today's PRC.

Now, if New Delhi has looked for a reciprocal gesture from Beijing - the recognition of Sikkim as an integral part of India in exchange for India's new formulation on Tibet - no clairvoyance is needed to realise that no such deal has been done. Official China has repeatedly underlined, in the specific context of the new Sino-Indian Memorandum on border trade, that the Sikkim issue, "left over from history'', could be resolved in "a gradual manner'' on the basis of the principle of "respecting history and reality''. While this signifies a tough line, at least outwardly, Wang Hongwei and Ma Jiali, the latter a Research Professor at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, point to the flexibility that is evident in this statement. According to them, the first step might have already been taken towards an eventual recognition of Sikkim as a part of Indian territory. One possibility, according to them, is a cartographic recognition of India's title to Sikkim, a de facto process, rather than a legal pronouncement by China.

The big picture of Sino-Indian amity, which subsumes all these issues, will also be determined by whether China recognises India as a non-NPT nuclear power (that is, one that is outside the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and by whether Beijing will back India for a veto-empowered permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. These questions have not yet been fully addressed by China.

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