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Towards a cooperative partnership

Print edition : Jul 18, 2003 T+T-

THERE can be little doubt that both India and China stand to gain importantly from Prime Minister Vajpayee's six-day visit. It has succeeded in deepening as well as broadening bilateral relations by yielding a Joint Declaration, the first of its kind between India and China; nine agreements denoting the new businesslike spread of the relationship, including a promising new agreement on border trade; a welcome thrust toward economic cooperation and bilateral trade; and a clear demonstration of high-level political will to build on the gains made in the bilateral relationship since 1988. The leadership of both countries can take credit for the mature way in which they have responded, in 2003, to the challenge of taking the India-China relationship to a new level. For Atal Bihari Vajpayee personally, it is a vindication of the soundness of the effort he made in February 1979, as External Affairs Minister in a disjointed Janata Party government, to bring normalcy to a problematical bilateral relationship - an early bird attempt that could not succeed because objective circumstances, external as well as domestic, were at odds with it.

The joint Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation is a commendable exercise. It formulates core principles that should govern the India-China relationship and rolls out a road map for friendship and cooperation that goes into particulars. Understanding, and acting sincerely on, these principles must be regarded as the key to the success of the big undertaking of building "a qualitatively new relationship." As the Joint Declaration sees it, the core principles flow from the mutually perceived need to promote the economic development and prosperity of the world's two most populous countries, maintain peace and stability in the region and in the world at large, "strengthen multipolarity at the international level," and "enhance the positive factors of globalisation."

The principles themselves can be summarised as follows: (a) India and China must be committed to developing a long-term cooperative "partnership" on the basis of the principles of Panchsheel, mutual respect and sensitivity for each other's concerns, and equality; (b) The two countries have a shared interest in maintaining peace, stability and prosperity in Asia and the world and a mutual desire to forge wider and closer cooperation and understanding in regional and international affairs; (c) "the common interests of the two sides outweigh their differences... the two countries are not a threat to each other... [and] neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other"; and (d) India and China must aim for a qualitative enhancement of the bilateral relationship at "all levels and in all areas" while addressing differences peacefully, fairly, reasonably and in a way calculated to persuade the other side, and be clear that "the differences should not be allowed to affect the overall development of bilateral relations."

These, broadly, are the principles reasonable, non-chauvinistic, forward-looking political leaders and intellectuals in India have been advocating for many years as the key to raising the India-China relationship to where it belongs. The Communist leader and former Chief Minister of Kerala, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, posed the key questions fairly in an assessment published in The Hindu of July 23, 1987: "We have been trying, and shall continue to try, to convince the people and the Government of our country that the problem of the border between the two countries has to be resolved through mutual discussions and that, for such discussions to succeed, both sides have to adopt a give and take attitude; neither India nor China can afford the luxury of trying to settle the differences through force of arms... We... had to pay a heavy price for taking the stand we did in 1959-62... The question... remains: has the Government of India, and those Opposition parties which had taken the same stand as the Government in 1959-62, learnt any lesson from the experience... are they prepared now to adopt a give and take attitude?" Dr. Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea, a former diplomat who is one of India's finest China scholars, has been advocating the same principles consistently over the years; she presents, as part of this Cover Story, an analysis of the progress made in recent years (against the background of past mistakes) and a vision of what can be achieved if the principles formulated and promises made during the Vajpayee visit are "translated onto policy and political practice."

Interestingly, these were the principles invoked in 1979 by the Chinese helmsman, Deng Xiaoping, in welcoming External Affairs Minister Vajpayee in the Great Hall of the People: "We do have some issues on which we are far apart. We should put those on the side for the moment and do some actual work to improve the climate to go about the problem. Our two countries are the two most populous countries in the world, and we are both Asian countries. How can we not be friends?"

Some of these principles were tragically violated in the period 1959-1962, when the bilateral relationship turned sour, then bitter, and was finally ruptured. On the positive side, many actors, events and processes contributed, over decades, to the working out of these principles. Mao Zedong's famous smile and handshake; his 1970 "instruction" that China should work for the improvement of relations with India; Ambassador K.R. Narayanan's restorative and forward-looking work in China during 1976-78; the Vajpayee visit of 1979; the Rajiv Gandhi breakthrough visit of December 1988; Premier Li Peng's December 1991 return visit, which produced a reiterated mutual public commitment to maintain peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC); Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's important September 1993 visit, which saw the conclusion of an invaluable agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC; President Jiang Zemin's late-1996 visit, which witnessed a major consolidation of this progress; high level military delegation visits in 1994, 1997 and 1998; President K.R. Narayanan's atmosphere-building visit of May-June 2000; the "first truly friendship delegation to India" led, in 2002, by Premier Zhu Rongji, who focussed sharply on economic matters - these represent defining moments in the evolution of these principles. For the sake of factuality, it must be noted that a letter of May 11, 1998 written by Prime Minister Vajpayee to the U.S. President, Bill Clinton, in the wake of the Pokhran nuclear explosions caused a temporary setback to the relationship. That ill-advised letter virtually scapegoated China, "an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed aggression against India in 1962", as the principal reason for India's nuclear explosions at Pokhran. However, with the Government of India making amends, that unhappy chapter was quickly closed.

POLITICALLY, the Prime Minister's visit to China has produced at least four significant outcomes. The first is the Joint Declaration itself. The second is the nomination of Special Representatives who will try and work out a framework for a boundary settlement from an overarching political perspective. This is a clear acknowledgement that progress in this area has been quite slow, although perhaps not much slower than might have been reasonably expected; and that while the work of experts and officials is important, politics holds the key to a boundary settlement in both India and China. Political India, for its part, must be clear that while positions and claims can be maintained and argued, there must be a clear break with the principle of unilateralism. A settlement of a long disputed boundary can only be based on fair, reasonable and, to the extent possible, scientific principles - above all, the principle of "give and take" famously advocated by Premier Zhou Enlai and Deng, and by many reasonable Indian statesmen over the years. Thirdly, on the question of Tibet, there seems to be a newly nuanced Indian official position. It is that India recognises that "the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People's Republic of China" (which is not as far a cry from saying that "Tibet is an integral part of China" as Ministry of External Affairs officials seem to imagine). The reiteration of the policy of not allowing Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, to "engage in anti-China political activities in India" will serve to allay uneasiness and apprehensions on the Chinese side. However, this long-stated Indian policy can begin to make a better contribution to a qualitatively enhanced India-China relationship only if there is strict adherence to, or better compliance with, the policy. Fourthly, India can take satisfaction from the official Chinese movement towards a recognition of Sikkim as an integral part of India, no matter how the small Himalayan state came into the Indian Union. This movement has come in the agreement on expanding border trade through Sikkim.

The Joint Declaration presents friendship and cooperation between India and China as meeting "the need to... strengthen multipolarity at the international level." This is a commendable objective. However, the demonstrated tendency of the Vajpayee government to pursue a pro-U.S. line on a range of international issues is at sharp variance with this objective. The vacillations over taking even a formal stand opposing the U.S.-led war of aggression and occupation in Iraq reflected this line. The active consideration of the U.S. request that India send its troops as part of "a stabilisation force" to an Iraq under U.S.-U.K. military occupation, and the clandestine negotiations that have taken place on this issue, under pressure from the Bush administration, are a mockery of the commitment to "strengthen multipolarity at the international level."

Finally, the Vajpayee visit brought a welcome focus on economic cooperation between India and China. A $5 billion level of two-way trade is nothing to scoff at and the prospects are bright and exciting, especially if the Joint Study Group (of economists and officials) being set up works with a vision and without hang-ups. The mandate of the Joint Study Group is to go into the "potential complementarities" between the two big economies and, within a year, to come up with a comprehensive programme for the development of bilateral trade and economic cooperation for the next five years. Equally important, the Joint Declaration commits the two countries to enhancing cooperation at the World Trade Organisation for mutual benefit as well as in the broader interest of developing countries. If this promise is actualised through the mechanism of regular dialogues on WTO issues, then a great deal can be done to resist the damaging effects of unequal global bargains.

India's business community seems to have nothing but admiration for China's remarkable post-1979 economic transformation and policies while China's business and political leaders seem almost in awe of India's emergence on the world stage as a "software superpower." Such perceptions of mutual and complementary strengths as well as honest acknowledgement that a great deal needs to be done in overcoming mass deprivation and backwardness in the two developing countries with different systems should count for much in actualising the vision presented in the Joint Declaration.