Li Peng in India

Print edition : February 03, 2001

The Chinese leader's visit is a clear signal that Sino-Indian relations have come a long way after the troubled post-Pokhran phase.

THE nine-day visit in January of Li Peng, the second most powerful person in the Chinese political hierarchy, was the most important visit to India by a Chinese leader since President Jiang Zemin's in 1996. It was a strong indicator that the relations be tween the two countries have improved considerably since the events that followed India's nuclear tests in 1998.

Although Li Peng's official position is that of Chairman of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, he is said to enjoy considerable support in the hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party. The strength of the Communist Party has mo re than doubled in the last decade - today it stands at around 20 million.

Li Peng and wife Zhu Ling with President K.R. Narayanan. Indian Ambassador to China Shiv Shankar Menon is in the background.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Before he left for India, Li Peng had cautioned against expectations of a dramatic breakthrough on important issues, such as the border dispute. Speaking to the media in Beijing, he emphasised the need for patience and the right conditions to settle the issue. "I hope, in the spirit of mutual understanding, and mutual accommodation, this issue can be resolved. Of course given its complexity, it requires patience and the right conditions for its settlement," Li told an Indian news agency before he left f or India.

Li, however, said that the issue could be resolved provided "the people and the leadership of our two countries sincerely hope for a solution." He recalled that the two countries had agreed to settle the border issue when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visi ted China in 1988. Li Peng was Prime Minister at that time. The visit had helped break the ice between the two countries. The Indian and Chinese Prime Ministers agreed at that time to settle the boundary dispute "through peaceful and friendly consultatio ns". A Joint Working Group (JWG) was established with this as the goal.

It was during Li's tenure as Prime Minister that the two countries signed an agreement in 1993 on the maintenance of peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), when Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao visited China. Li said that this agr eement was the key to the maintenance of "safety and security along the border areas".

Li's comments on the border issue were yet another signal that China was ready for some hard bargaining to settle the issue. The Chinese side indicated that it would make significant concessions if India was willing to reciprocate. It emphasised that the border issue was a "sensitive" one for China too. China has settled its land border disputes with almost all of its neigbours. Li Peng told the media before he came to India that he would be satisfied if the trip would "contribute in some way" to the se ttlement of the dispute with India. Senior Indian Foreign Ministry officials, however, gave the impression that they were not in a hurry to settle the long-running dispute, and that they would prefer to let it remain on the back-burner.

INITIALLY, there were efforts to downplay the significance of Li Peng's visit. Senior Indian officials said that Li Peng was coming at the invitation of the Lok Sabha Speaker and the Vice-President of India. A slightly sour note was struck when Li Peng was in India, when Chief of the Army Staff General S. Padmanabhan said in an interview broadcast on national television, on the eve of Army Day, that infrastructure, including roads built by China near the LAC, was creating "some problems" between the tw o countries. The Army chief added that the two nations were "poles apart" with regard to their positions on the LAC. Gen. Padmanabhan, however, said that the two countries had maintained a certain degree of stability along the LAC after the two agreement s relating to the border question were signed.

During his visit, Li Peng also talked about a lack of understanding between the two countries on "certain issues" left behind by history. But in his meeting with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, he expressed satisfaction at the progress made on the c larification of the LAC and hoped that the process would be completed at the earliest. The two sides had exchanged maps of the central sector of the boundary for the first time last November. Both Li Peng and Vajpayee expressed the hope that the process of demarcating the border would be completed soon. The Experts Group and the JWGs will meet in the coming months to expedite the process.

The Chinese leader consistently emphasised the need to continue to seek ways to find a solution to contentious bilateral issues while at the same time exploring new avenues for cooperation. An External Affairs Ministry spokesman described the Vajpayee-Li Peng meeting as "very cordial, friendly and even relaxed". Li Peng extended to Vajpayee an invitation from Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, to visit China. Zhu himself will visit India soon.

Li Peng had wide-ranging discussions with President K.R. Narayanan and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh.

Li Peng with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in New Delhi.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Li Peng told a group of Indian parliamentarians that developing and developed countries were being accorded "different status and treatment" in important forums such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO). He echoed the Chinese leadership's worry about th e challenges posed by globalisation and the current reality of a unipolar world. Globalisation, he said, should not mean global integration. Every country had a right to choose its own path of development, he said. He added that both Beijing and New Delh i were in favour of a multipolar world and were against hegemonism.

Li Peng told mediapersons after his meeting with Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi that China and India did not "pose any threat to each other" and that historical issues between the two countries could be settled through negotiations. He categorically d enied reports that his country supplied nuclear technology to Pakistan. "There is no such thing. There is a traditional friendship between China and Pakistan, which we are using for mutual economic development," said Li. He reiterated the Chinese positio n that military trade and cooperation between China and Pakistan "are conducted in full compliance with international practices and treaties". The Chinese leader welcomed the recent "positive" moves by India and Pakistan to find a solution to the conflic t in Kashmir. He said that China would welcome and support any move that will help promote relations between India and Pakistan.

Speaking at the India International Centre in New Delhi, Li Peng said that mistrust and lack of understanding continued to create problems between Indian and China. Building "greater trust" between the two countries was a priority, he said. He said that China "has never taken India as a threat, nor do we intend to pose a threat" to India. The Chinese leader also said that his country was keen on boosting trade and economic cooperation with India. He said that the present volume of trade was "far from c ommensurate with the scale of our respective economies".

Li Peng said that both countries had the "obligation and the capability to work more actively" in the international arena. He indicated that his country was willing to cooperate with all countries, including India, to fight international terrorism. He sa id China supported every "effort to combat international terrorism through the formulation of international conventions and hopes that the international community will take further steps to improve the international legal framework against terrorism." Ch ina has been careful in not jumping on to the anti-Taliban bandwagon, unlike the United States, Russia and India. It abstained from voting on the U.N. Security Council resolution that imposed sanctions on Afghanistan in December last. But China has been a victim of terrorism in recent times. The Uighur separatists in China are known to have links with the Islamists of the Central Asian region.

The concept of an informal triangular strategic cooperation between Moscow, New Delhi and Beijing, which was first mooted by former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov during his visit to India three years ago, seems to have found acceptance with Ind ia and China. Both the countries were initially unenthusiastic about the proposal. But certain important developments in the global arena over the last two years, most notably the NATO-imposed war on Yugoslavia and the legitimacy that the West seeks to g ive for the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, seem to have prompted them to re-assess their foreign policy options.

Beijing has sent out signals that it is not averse to informal meetings of the Track Two variety where all the three parties can discuss issues such as multipolarity. While Li Peng was still in the country, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed that scholars from Russia, India and China would soon meet to discuss the potential for a possible tripartite partnership. For quite some time, the Chinese foreign policy strategy has been to "rely on the North, stabilise the West and focus attention on the eastern and southern directions". Beijing hopes that this formula will safeguard its long-term geo-political interests.

The Chinese concept of national security provides for strategic partnership with Russia in the north, normalisation of relations with India and all-round development of contacts with Central Asia, which is crucial for negating separatist tendencies in Xi njiang and Tibet. Beijing does not want any threat to emerge from the western direction (that is, India) and at the same time wants to preclude the hegemonic predilections of the U.S. in the region. The Dalai Lama's proximity to sections of the U.S. and of the Indian establishment is a worry for Beijing.

During his visit, Li Peng spent only around three days in the Indian capital. He first landed in Mumbai, where he visited close relatives of the legendary Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis. Kotnis, who hailed from Maharashtra, did yeoman work among the poor in China , when the Chinese Communist Party was struggling to liberate the country.

Li Peng also visited Bangalore and Hyderabad to see for himself the developments in the information technology (IT) field. In Hyderabad, he said that the process of industrialisation in his country would be accelerated by the development of IT. He told I ndian policy-makers that economic reforms, development and stability must be sensitively handled as they were linked. He said that the aim of the Chinese economic reforms was to establish a "socialist market economy". The goal was to be self-sufficient i n food and to boost gross domestic product (GDP). China has targeted a 7 per cent annual growth for the next 10 years. According to the Chinese leader, only 4 per cent of the Chinese populace lived below the poverty line.

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