A new entente

Published : Feb 24, 2006 00:00 IST

There is a measure of new maturity in the dialogue between India and China, and their Asian neighbours are by and large beginning to be comfortable with the way in which their ties are shaping up.


IN the spirit of the China-India Friendship Year, the two giant neighbours have, since early 2006, engaged each other intensively in "strategic dialogue". The decision to celebrate 2006 as the `year of friendship' was taken during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to India in April last year.

Other Asian powers, except Japan and Pakistan for entirely different reasons, are also beginning to feel comfortable with the way China-India ties are shaping up. Now, any dramatic improvement in India's relationship with China poses no real threat to Japan, still the world's second economic superpower after the United States.

However, by January-end Tokyo's own political equation with Beijing showed no sign of looking up after it reached the nadir in 2005 for a number of reasons that had nothing to do with India.

Coincidentally and perhaps not politically as well, Japan has now suddenly departed from the strategic track of making common cause with India, within the Group of Four (G-4), which includes also Brazil and Germany, at the United Nations. For Japan, on balance, the possibility of a new China-India entente is not so much a political surprise from New Delhi as yet another ace up in Beijing's sleeves.

Relevant to such a Japanese perspective is India's latest `political spin' that Tokyo is still in "solidarity" with the other G-4 members in their common quest for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council.

For Pakistan, whose dynamic relationship with Beijing at the government-to-government level has always posed a strategic challenge to New Delhi, any dramatic upswing in China's ties with India will certainly be a new "ball game" to adjust to. Over the years, whenever India wanted to know about the logic of China-Pakistan "special relationship", Beijing invariably emphasised that its dealings with Islamabad were entirely in line with "normal" state-to-state exchanges.

Noteworthy in this context is Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran's statement, in response to a media query, that he did not ask his Chinese interlocutors, during the second round of "strategic dialogue" in Beijing from January 9 to 11, about China's alleged supply of nuclear reactors to Islamabad at this time.

His emphatic answer was that there indeed was no confirmation that any such transaction had taken place as reported.

In a sense, it is perhaps a measure of the new maturity in the ongoing dialogue between India and China that such issues are not raised on the grounds of mere suspicion or hearsay. At another level, Saran's latest talks with his Chinese counterpart and Vice-Foreign Minister Wu Dawei indicate, too, that New Delhi is keen to engage Beijing within a new strategic framework without any fixations about Pakistan (as in India's case) or the U.S. (as in China's case).

Tentative conclusions of this kind can be gleaned from the public diplomacy of the two sides in recent months. It is a different matter, though, whether the U.S. and Pakistan can be divorced altogether from the evolving China-India equation as the two old factors with a possible new impact. There is indeed much comment in public diplomacy and also behind the scenes, especially as regards the U.S. as a key factor, to indicate that Washington's possible shadow, and impact, over the blossoming China-India relationship has not yet been fully addressed by all the three sides.

FOR the present, three aspects of the intensifying China-India dialogue stand out. These relate to the manner in which the boundary dispute is being addressed now, the emerging signs of optimism in East Asia as a result, and the signals to China about India's bid to emphasise its credentials as a nuclear-armed state that can be truly counted upon in the area of global non-proliferation.

Impinging on these aspects of the China-India engagement are two important factors: Beijing's efforts to come into its own as a potential great power by resolving the Taiwan issue and, on a related plane, the qualitative moves by the U.S., in open association with Japan and with transparent expectations of some cooperation from India at some stage, to checkmate the Chinese altogether.

As for the China-India boundary question, the core issue if viewed purely in terms of conventional power politics, the two sides have already dropped sufficient hints that they might not be bracing for a showdown. Their designated Special Representatives will meet in India in late February for yet another round of political-perspective talks, in the current series, on the boundary issue. This was agreed upon when Saran called on Chinese Executive Vice-Foreign Minister and Special Representative Dai Bingguo in Beijing, on the sidelines of the strategic dialogue.

Neither side is seeking to discount the criticality of a mutually acceptable settlement of the boundary question as the basis for a long-term bilateral relationship of robust dynamism. At the same time, both have come to recognise the importance of going beyond claims and counter-claims. This was spelt out clearly by the Indian side after the latest round of strategic dialogue.

It is also of much greater substance than a mere nuance that Saran indicated that a boundary settlement could indeed be fashioned on the basis of the "Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity" that India and China had agreed upon during Wen Jiabao's visit to New Delhi. Chinese leaders have also frequently expressed their desire to see the issue resolved, and they are keen to fashion a solution that could heighten the quality of the bilateral equation.

Closely linked to the China-India search for a boundary settlement is the new sense of optimism in East Asia over their positive engagement over this and other issues. Deserving of emphasis is the assessment by Singapore's Senior Minister and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. It will be "simplistic" to expect India and China to "collide", Goh noted in a recent conversation. He is glad that the China-India border question "is being resolved in a manner which would not result in any conflict".

Such political sentiments are shared by leaders across East Asia, with some among them even advocating that New Delhi and Beijing should take care to avoid being sucked into any pro- or anti-U.S. camp in a manner that could only affect the rise of both India and China as major economic and political powers.

While leaders and opinion-makers in East Asia do not miss the growing signs of "potential cooperation" between India and China on the wider regional scene, the recent East Asia Summit did bring into focus not only the opportunities but also the challenges.

Behind the scenes of that summit last December (Frontline, January 13, 2006), India and China found themselves at political odds, not on a direct collision course, over the best means to create an East Asia Community over the longer term. In the end, though, the issue was resolved as a win-win formula for both China and India. It was, finally, not a question of which of them won more points than the other. Both stay the course for the longer haul.

The last but not the least of the three recognisable dimensions of the ongoing China-India strategic dialogue is New Delhi's explicit move to seek Beijing's support as a possible ally within the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). New Delhi wants "modification" in the NSG's restrictive "guidelines", which have already impinged adversely on India's efforts to produce atomic energy for peaceful purposes. The story of India's current troubles with the NSG dates back to the international consequences of the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear detonations.

New Delhi feels buoyed over Washington's perceived willingness, as expressed in 2005, to consider recognising India as a nuclear-armed state with the right credentials to promote the international non-proliferation agenda. Whatever be the latest arguments in the India-U.S. dialogue over this issue, Saran felt at ease in asking his Chinese interlocutors to extend "cooperation" so that the NSG guidelines could be modified to suit New Delhi's requirements for peaceful nuclear energy.

High-ranking Chinese sources later told Frontline that "the sensitive issue" was now on the table. It would now be a judgment call by China's arms control authorities. China, like the U.S., is a key NSG player, and India knows that the Group's members will have their say, although it will be up to the U.S. to "take the lead" that could help India.

It is this aspect of Official India's new expectations of the U.S. that can impinge on the wide-spectrum dialogue between New Delhi and Beijing over the longer term. The simple but profound question is whether New Delhi is now trying to "bond with" or "band-wagon with" Washington as its junior partner.

At the other end of the India-China spectrum of dialogue, Beijing's own perceptions of the U.S. game plans in East Asia can be no less an important factor. While Beijing and Washington seek a "constructive" and "cooperative" engagement, U.S. President George W. Bush's recent visit to China (Frontline, November 18, 2005) has already brought into sharp focus some of the challenges that they encounter.

OF enormous material significance to the China-U.S. dialogue in this context is the Taiwan issue. There is a growing perception in East Asian diplomatic circles that China might want to hit the fast track, some time after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in a bid to resolve the Taiwan question. Japan has already sided with the U.S. on the Taiwan issue.

India's recognition of Taiwan as an intrinsic part of the People's Republic of China is well known, but Beijing suspects that the U.S. is looking for the possibility of new alignment of forces in the Asia Pacific region. This is a new reality that follows the recognition within the U.S., by scholars such as Stephen M. Walt and others, that global hegemony is beyond Washington's reach. It is in this political and intellectual climate that Saran has now sought to reassure Beijing that the mutual containment theory, as regards India and China, is untenable.

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