Zhu Rongji in India

Print edition : February 02, 2002

The Chinese Prime Minister calls for renewed efforts to expand economic, scientific and political ties between India and China.

CHINESE Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's six-day visit to India in the second week of January took place at a time when military tensions between India and Pakistan were on the boil. The schedule was fixed much before the crisis erupted. All the same, the visit, coming as it did in the wake of other high-level visits by foreign dignitaries to New Delhi, was significant. During the visit the Indian and Chinese sides discussed the crisis. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee explained New Delhi's position on the issue.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh receive Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji in New Delhi on January 13.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The Chinese government had strongly condemned the terrorist attack on Parliament House. During Zhu's visit, the Indian government conveyed its appreciation of this stand. Vajpayee told Zhu that he hoped that the problem with Pakistan would be sorted out through talks. Zhu reiterated the Chinese position that the India-Pakistan dispute should be resolved through negotiations. During the high-level discussions, Zhu said the January 12 speech of President Pervez Musharraf reflected the resolve of the Pakistani government to combat terrorism.

Chinese Ambassador to India Hua Junduo described Zhu's visit as a "very important one" and said that the Indian and Chinese Prime Minister held talks for "five long hours" on a wide range of subjects. Zhu also met President K.R. Narayanan and Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sonia Gandhi. Hua said that the visit was aimed at "enhancing friendship, strengthening mutual ties and expanding economic cooperation". He added that there existed a common ground and shared historical experiences for the further strengthening of friendship between the two countries.

The last visit by a Chinese Prime Minister to India was in 1991, by Li Peng. There have been other high-profile visits by Chinese leaders since then. In 1996, President Jiang Zemin paid a state visit to India, the first by a Chinese head of state since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1950.

Although there was a temporary downturn in bilateral relations following the diplomatic faux pas by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government after the Pokhran-II in 1998, relations were quickly put back on track. Immediately after India went nuclear, both Prime Minister Vajpayee and Defence Minister George Fernandes labelled China as a potential source of threat. The Chinese government has consistently stated that it does not consider India a threat or seek to create a sphere of influence in the region. It was External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's visit to China in June 1999 that helped normalise ties.

A joint statement, issued after Jaswant Singh's visit, stated that to develop Sino-Indian relations the premise should be adherence to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, or Panch Sheel. This had been the guiding principle of Sino-Indian relations since the 1950s. Both sides agreed that they do not pose a threat to each other.

With Jaswant Singh's visit, high-level exchanges resumed. President Narayanan went on a state visit to China in May 2000. This was soon followed by a visit by Li Peng, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National Peoples Congress, in January last year (Frontline, February 16, 2001). During his visit Li Peng conveyed to the Indian leadership that China was interested in long-term, stable relations on the basis of friendship and cooperation. Senior Chinese government officials have on many occasions articulated the view that China and India, as the two largest developing countries, have the obligation and the capability to play a more active role internationally.

Beijing has been consistent in its stand that both countries have common interests in the international political and economic arena. Both New Delhi and Beijing favour the creation of a multi-polar world and have similar views on many other important issues. But the present government in New Delhi seems to have some misgivings about Beijing's "all weather" relations with Islamabad. These concerns have been accentuated by the military tensions along the India-Pakistan border.

The recent purchase of F-6 fighter planes from China by Pakistan has also not gone down well with New Delhi. Beijing has been traditionally a supplier of military hardware to Islamabad and the contract for the planes was a pre-arranged one. What is interesting is the fact that Beijing has adopted a cautious stance on the Kashmir issue. President Jiang, during his visit to India and Pakistan six years ago, had suggested that both Islamabad and New Delhi put the Kashmir issue on the backburner and concentrate on other important issues. Beijing's position on the issue has not changed since. It is also against any third-party mediation in the conflict; it fears that such mediation would set a precedent and allow the United States even more leeway in the region than it has already.

Substantial progress has been made in the matter of resolving the border problem between China and India. In the last session of talks, expert groups from both sides exchanged maps on the middle sector. This is expected to pave the way for the delineation of the border in this sector where there are no serious differences between the two sides. Both sides feel that once this was resolved, discussions can start on the more complicated western and eastern sectors.

China, however, wants India to show a positive inclination to resolve the issue. Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi said late last year that the "Vajpayee government is very keen to resolve the boundary dispute" but added that China was trying to figure out if there is consensus in India on the issue. He was alluding to the position of some political parties and individuals in the National Democratic Alliance government. During Zhu's visit, the Chinese spokesperson said in New Delhi that both sides indicated that there were some problems in bilateral relations but agreed that these could be sorted out "through mutual agreement and adjustment". Soon after Zhu's visit, Ambassador Hua said that both sides had "reached a consensus on finding a just and reasonable solution to the problem, which will be acceptable to both the sides".

According to Indian officials, the focus of the talks was on ways to expand economic, scientific and political ties in a pragmatic way. "We have more common understanding than differences and our interests far outweigh any friction," Zhu said in New Delhi. He went on to emphasise the fact that both sides had common long-term interests.

Both China and India have agreed to expand cooperation in order to combat terrorism, which has assumed global dimensions. It was announced during Zhu's visit that the two countries would hold regular dialogue on the subject and constitute an anti-terror consultation mechanism. For China, the terrorist problem is confined mainly to the Uighur minority living in Xinjiang province. Some Uighur militants had close connections with the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network. Beijing had also reasons to believe that the Uighur separatists were encouraged by the West in the recent past.

Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi had supported the initial actions taken by Washington in the wake of September 11. All the three governments had claimed that the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists had links with separatist organisations in their respective countries. But Beijing and Moscow have reservations about the long-term game plan of the U.S. in the region, especially about its moves to have permanent military bases in the Central Asian republics. The Bush administration's doctrine of "perpetual war" against terrorism has alarmed both China and Russia which see this as a thinly disguised attempt to perpetuate global U.S. hegemony.

Evidently, this view is not shared by the Indian government. Jaswant Singh, during his talks with leading American columnists just after the Chinese leader's visit, did not seem to be against a long-term U.S. military presence in Central Asia. "I don't think the U.S. can give up the Central Asia presence now. You will be criticised. The presence troubles Russia and China. But you won't be able to give it up anytime soon," The Washington Post reported. Jaswant Singh went on to add that China "feels somewhat isolated at the moment" as the changes that had occurred since September 11 "have not been to its advantage". Jaswant Singh also expressed the hope that U.S. troops would stay on in Pakistan.

THE Chinese leadership is no doubt watching the evolving geopolitical situation and New Delhi's reaction, but during his visit, Zhu preferred to concentrate on the business of strengthening bilateral economic ties. According to the Chinese Ambassador, five Memoranda of Understanding and contracts worth more than $100 million were signed during the visit. The Chinese Prime Minister said that the volumes of trade between the two countries were not large enough. Hua said that the orientation of future relations between the two countries would depend on the level of economic interaction.

Zhu had an important role to play in China's dramatic economic transformation in the past two decades. Besides the capital, he visited Agra, Bangalore and Mumbai. He was especially moved by the reception he got at the headquarters of Infosys, a leading software company, in Bangalore, where 4,000 employees gave him a standing ovation. A 25-member Chinese business delegation had accompanied Zhu on his visit to Mumbai and Bangalore. The Chinese, who have high regard for Indian expertise in software development, are said to excel in hardware. Collaboration in the IT field can benefit both countries. "We are number one in hardware and you are number one in software exports. If we put the hardware and the software together, we can become the world's number one and make progress together," Zhu said.

In Mumbai, Zhu addressed a meeting jointly organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). He asked Indian business houses to invest more in China and promote joint ventures in the fields of information technology, telecommunications, science and technology and education. He said that the current trade volume of $3 billion between the two countries was not good enough. Zhu hoped that it would grow to $10 billion in the near future with "greater encouragement and serious commitment".

Zhu told Indian businesspersons that setting up joint ventures would be beneficial to consumers. As an illustration, he said that consumer durables would be three to six times cheaper if Chinese firms are allowed to set up shop in India. "We can bring in the technology and set up joint ventures and even after adding the necessary tariffs, the goods would be cheaper," he said. He added that China would maintain the current growth rate of 7.3 per cent in spite of the global recession. According to the Chinese Prime Minister, foreign direct investment (FDI) in his country increased to a record $46.8 billion last year.

Jaswant Singh apparently does not believe the statistics put out by Chinese officials. Speaking at a seminar in New Delhi a few days later, he suggested that the official statistics about the growth rate were exaggerated by around 2 per cent.