Hastening slowly

Print edition : December 31, 2004

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the 10th ASEAN summit in Vientiane on November 30. - AFP

There is forward movement, however slow, in setting direction for clearing away the blocks in the India-China relationship. But, India has still to come to terms with the past and the demands of the present.

SOMETIMES it becomes imperative to undertake a return to the past, to identify a block that needs to be overcome and/or to identify a starting point or fount for a new or different future. This is never easy to do. Fortunately, however, the climate change in politics throughout the world and even in India-China relations today encourages if not demands such an effort. In the highly complex matter of rectifying or normalising India-China relations or, as at present, desiring to go beyond the usual to national and multilateral cooperation, it is of pressing importance to do so with determination. In this fast-paced world, time is of the essence and, as comparison with China at any level reveals, India has lost just too much time in recovering from its 1962 syndrome and in the process has risked being bypassed by the world.

This state of affairs has been changing of late. It is visible in a steady high rate of economic growth (at 7 per cent) that has attracted the attention of the world, its Information Technology (IT) successes, an opening up to partnerships of all kinds with major countries, a leap to $12 billion trade with China, a discovery of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia, its newly acquired nuclear status, and so on.

Much of this has been made possible because of a forward movement, however slow, in setting direction for clearing away the blocks in the India-China relationship, in particular on the territorial front. To complete this project, an honest return to the past becomes of special importance.

This past offers two distinct paradigms of the bilateral relationship. Both revolve around the sensitive question of territory and the territorial limits of these two big and new neighbouring states, and both establish an umbilical relationship between a territorial settlement and the nature of the political relationship. Neither of these paradigms can or should be replicated, as I have argued for the past many years, while at the same time their more positive aspects need to be cherished. Fortunately, there is today an evolving national consensus that wants this umbilical cord to be finally cut.

There appears to be a rising impatience with the persistence of this problem, and a growing feeling that despite the improvement in the India-China relationship, it is the unresolved territorial issue that constrains India from developing its full potential, political and economic, and from taking its rightful place in world forums. An unshadowed cooperative relationship with China is coming to be regarded as being advantageous if not the key to this project. Accordingly, in the public mind, the settlement of the territorial issue continues to be seen as being central to the unfolding of a different future.

This is reflected in the treatment by the Indian media of the 40-minute Manmohan Singh-Wen Jiabao meeting of November 30 that took place on the sidelines of the ASEAN +3 summit in Vientiane. It witnessed the signing of several important documents, including the far-reaching agreement on Peace Progress and Common Prosperity between India and ASEAN, the progress towards a China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA), the third largest of its kind in the world with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $2 trillion, scheduled now to be in place one year ahead of time, and the stirring (but impractical?) Indian vision of an Asian Economic Community to rival that of the Europeon Union (E.U.).

Nevertheless, the Indian media did focus more on the India-China prime ministerial meeting, in particular on nuggets related to the territorial issues, than it did on the regional and economic developments mentioned above that promise to open up valuable options for India. This coverage and interest, though limited, is greater than in the past and reflects another important change that is under way in India, namely, the recovery of a strategic horizon not limited by the `given' of Chinese hostility to India. That was Indira Gandhi's legacy. It faced the ASEAN countries with having to choose between India and China: its other aspect was her determination to see India become a strong military power with a reliable superpower as ally. This combination was expected to counter the China-United States-Pakistan axis that she feared had come into being after 1972.

India's decade-old Look East policy that had somehow leapfrogged over South-East Asia and ASEAN (which we could have joined in the early 1980s but missed out on the opportunity) to reach out to Japan and South Korea, again had undertones of an Indian need to countervail China. With Mikhail Gorbachev at the helm in the Soviet Union, this policy, like so many other positions on world affairs just sort of meandered into the desert. This is not the place for a dissertation on this subject but clearly the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new geo-strategic and geo-political landscape in a resultant unipolar distribution of global power, demanded review and rethinking by all states, urged on by the swamping tides of economic globalisation and the information revolution, of Cold War policies and alliances.

India, like the ponderous elephant it has been compared to, was slow to move to meet these challenges as China had done almost 15 years earlier. The world image of India today as a rising power almost, but not quite on a par with China, emerges from its recent economic reforms, its nuclear tests and its search for a new equation with China. As long as this relationship was still shadowed by fears of the rise of China as a threat, as long as the territorial issue remained unresolved, and as long as the Indian leadership perceived the U.S. and India as `natural allies', the U.S. could afford not to alter its India policy regarding Pakistan, fundamentally.

However, should India and China be successful in removing the irritants and obstacles such as Pakistan, Tibet, Sikkim and, above all, territory that stand in the way of refashioning the bilateral relationship, the U.S. and the world will take notice, for the magic of numbers would be irresistible. The possibilities that would then open up for the country, the region, the world, and above all for people, which could transform systems, values and norms that govern the play of domestic and inter-state politics, are truly extraordinary. Between them these two countries could, quite literally, change the world. Together, they account for almost one-third of the world's population, are among the top fastest-growing economies, and have a combined GDP of over $1.7 trillions, and the skills and competence of their people are almost legendary. Both countries had sensed the magic of combined numbers, of size, and of course of culture and civilisation, from a time even before they emerged as independent modern states. This last is especially important in an age when all norms and values, personal, social and political, are changing or are under attack, when fresh ideas and values that would contribute to a new global culture are called for.

For a very brief period in the mid-1950s, India and China together did seem to heal the world a little by providing hope and creating new options under the Panchsheel norms. The failure to pursue this course attests to the grave difficulties they faced in breaking with traditional patterns of state behaviour. The other side of the numbers coin, is the sheer horror of an all-out war with modern weapons between these two enormous political entities, that would willy-nilly suck in both near and distant neighbours and perhaps bring the world to the brink of another holocast. I would venture to say that an awareness of both possibilities contributed, among other lesser reasons, to the limitation and containment of the 1962 conflict. It is in this context that Premier Wen's hope that his coming visit to India "will send a positive signal throughout the world" should be read, as also the expectation he shared with his Indian counterpart that "the handshake between you and me will catch the attention of the whole world". It evokes memories of the wide interest and the strategic responses that the India-China friendship of 1954+Panchsheel+Bandung, aroused in the West.

The Vientiane meeting of the two Prime Ministers was consequently given the coverage normally reserved for a summit meeting, by the English language national dailies. Much play, as might have been expected, was given to what the two Prime Ministers said to each other on bilateral and relational issues, and even more was made of what was said on the territorial issue and the bilateral relationship. Nevertheless this time these relations were placed within a larger context to the mere reporting of the bilateral, which was, however, more economic than it was political.

Inevitably, echoes of old thinking did creep in, for instance, in the suggestion that the ASEAN countries welcomed India and even Japan as a counterbalance to China's enormous economic clout and footprint in the region, or in dismissing the words of the Chinese Prime Minister as flattering platitudes. Still, negative comments like these were fewer than could have been expected, testifying to the great change that is under way in the public perception of China - under way, for it is still fragile but can, at present, perhaps suffice to encourage the government to proceed with finding solutions to the territorial issue, and Indian business to trade and invest in China with confidence. The prospect of India-China trade touching $100 billion within the next few years, held out by the two leaders, not only fires the Indian imagination but no longer seems an impossible goal.

Despite all this there was a marked asymmetry of perspective and priority on the bilateral, which came through in the statements made by the two Prime Ministers. For instance, on the fundamental requirement of returning to the past to identify an agreed and shared entry point to a possible territorial agreement, the differences could become critical. In his return to the past, the Indian Prime Minister appeared to take the Rajiv Gandhi-Deng Xiaoping summit meeting of 1988 as the entry point for a territorial solution. He made no mention of the unusual Joint Declaration that was signed at the end of the visit of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to China in April 2003, even though he has followed through with, and perhaps helped to routinise, the meetings of Special Representatives charged with the limited task of agreeing on a `framework for a boundary settlement' from a political perspective on the overall relationship. The language was carefully refined and needs to be as carefully read.

This Joint Declaration, it may be recalled, took the bold and brave step of clarifying the ambiguous political status of Sikkim and of Tibet, albeit only elliptically, perhaps because both states have to answer to their domestic constituencies and critics. According to information available, Vajpayee took this step only after consultation with other political parties and as part of the evolving national consensus on this issue. In doing so, the two sides arrived, in effect, at an agreement on where the India-China boundary could be drawn, thus reducing the dimensions of the post-1958 problem to manageable/negotiable proportions. It also put in place the institution of the Special Representatives (SR), to provide the necessary political direction under a formula first devised during the Rajiv Gandhi visit of 1988, that is, to seek a `fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable' solution to the territorial issue.

The four meetings of the SRs held since April 2003 have been commended by Manmohan Singh for having made considerable progress, but without acknowledgement of their parentage. The reluctance of the Congress as well as the other political parties to acknowledge overtly and gracefully the contributions of their predecessors to the advance of national issues does not do them much credit, for the problem is the nation's problem, a solution to the problem is in the country's interest, and the territorial state, like God is one, though it may have many governments and many political parties.

Manmohan Singh's reluctance to acknowledge the Vajpayee contribution of 2003 may cause the Chinese some anxieties, for they are familiar by now with the untidiness of a democratic system and its inability to ensure continuity of policies when a new party comes to power. During the meeting, Wen is reported to have said that India-China relations are `now in the best shape in history', that they have `tens of thousands of reasons' for enhancing cooperation, that peaceful coexistence conforms to the fundamental interests of the two countries and peoples. He went on to say that the signing of the Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation by him and Vajpayee last year `signals that the relations between the two countries have entered a new stage of comprehensive development.' He repeated what Chinese leaders have said often, that relations should be addressed from a strategic and overall perspective - a more straightforward version of Jiang Zemin's oft-quoted plea to `stand tall and look far'. There was a clear message in this for India, namely that that document must be the basis both for the future relationship and for ending the territorial problem.

It may be mentioned here, that soon after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government took office, the Prime Minister in a press conference made a reference to China policy and promised continuity. The official Chinese spokesman took prompt note of this at an official briefing and seized the opportunity to reiterate China's policy towards India as `an important neighbour' with whom it would like to `continuously deepen' a constructive and cooperative partnership. In doing so, China was in effect asking for a reassurance from the UPA government that the political breakthrough of 2003, which Rajiv Gandhi had been unprepared or unable to make would continue to be the basis for the unfolding of a multi-level multi-directional or `comprehensive' relationship.

On his part, the Indian Prime Minister is reported to have assured Wen that India attaches great importance to the development of bilateral relations with China, to enhancing cooperation and developing economic and trade ties with it, and that his government has a `strong political will' to resolve the territorial issue. It is in this context and of the Indian desire to come to a settlement soon that Wen pointed out realistically that it would not be `an easy task' and would require both `confidence and patience'.

While Manmohan Singh's statements show some improvement over past statements of the Congress, they nevertheless reveal a political horizon that is still limited and narrow, and not even sufficiently regional or Asian. The reported non-mention of Pakistan is undoubtedly an improvement but one that pertains only to South Asia. This is also true of what can be seen as attendant moves to support and consolidate a refashioning of India-China relations. These include the India-Pakistan peace process, the recent statements of the Dalai Lama on the possible advantages for Tibet from remaining within China and the reopening of talks with Chinese leaders, the increasing people to people contacts with China and Pakistan at all levels including the local, and so on.

There are also other developments such as the Kunming Initiative and the proposed transnational road and other communication links across Myanmar and Tibet to facilitate trade and travel, including a possible oil pipeline from Central Asia via the Karakoram Highway or from Xinjiang via the Hump, that go beyond the bilateral or regional. They have yet, however, to be integrated into a holistic framework of policy and an appreciation of multilateralism. The Indian strategic horizon needs to be stretched further to accommodate all this, to bring home a newly acquired regional and economic dimension and to extend beyond to the level of world politics. It needs to go beyond a China policy framed within bilateral or South Asian parameters to embed it in a larger global perspective on anticipated trends and challenges in the new century. In brief, India needs to step firmly out of the bilateral/South Asia box. China, even in its darkest days, did not lose a world perspective or reduce relations with India only to the bilateral. It is not surprising therefore that Premier Wen is reported to have expressed the view that relations between the two countries have both regional and global significance. It is, however, surprising that on his return to India, his statement did not choose to educate the people about the progress in India-China reltions.

It is clear that India has still to come to terms with the past and the demands of the present, to realise how much the world has changed, that it needs to sit up and think about past problems and their solutions and how to go beyond them to maximise its opportunities and advantages. The particular case in point is the India-China territorial issue. To hasten slowly is good, provided one knows what this different future is and how it is to be arrived at.

Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea is Emeritus Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.

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