NEW DELHI, Nov 27 (IPS) – At the end of an important week-long visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to South Asia, what does the complicated triangular relationship between Beijing, New Delhi and Islamabad, three of Asia’s four nuclear powers, look like?
Going by conventional wisdom, and most media reports, there was a sharp contrast between the relatively lacklustre, business-like reception that Hu got in India, and the euphoric welcome that he received in Pakistan. In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not turn up to greet him on his arrival. In Islamabad, the entire cabinet, led by President Pervez Musharraf did, to a thundering 21-gun salute.
Hu signed a record 18 agreements with Pakistan; with India, only 13. The Sino-Pakistan agreements had a strong military-strategic component, unlike the accords China signed with India.
However, on deeper analysis, Hu’s visit to India was probably for more important and represented a bigger breakthrough than his visit to Pakistan.
“Hu landed in India shortly after the Chinese ambassador to India made a rather unfortunate reference to China’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh, which India says is part of its territory in the North-east,” says Manoranjan Mohanty, co-chairman of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi. “But within a day, the negative impact of the statement had vanished.”
Argues Mohanty: “There is simply no doubt that India and China significantly widened the scope of mutual cooperation in several areas, including agriculture, education, tourism and even nuclear energy. It appears that India and China now seek to go beyond a better bilateral relationship. They’re aware of the impact that they could together make on what Hu calls the â€˜emerging multi-polarity’ in the world.”
However, it was far from clear if China and India, home to two-fifths of humanity, will together leverage their growing economic, military and political strength to make reform the global order although they are uniquely placed to do so in the current international situation.
China was positive on certain regional agendas suggested by India, including greater coordination among the â€˜BCIM’ countries (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) and the so-called East Asia Initiative.
Indian policy-makers are particularly pleased at China’s response to their proposals for extended bilateral cooperation, including one for setting up an expert-level committee on the waters of four rivers, including the Brahmaputra, which originates on the Tibetan plateau. (Earlier, there were reports that China is planning to divert water flows into the Brahmaputra.)
Most important of all, India has concluded from its discussions with China that Beijing would not stand in the way of getting the United States-India nuclear deal from being approved by the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, of which it is a member. However, India did not specifically solicit China’s support on the issue and will not do so until the precise shape of the deal becomes clear in the U.S. Congress which is debating it.
“I think many positive signals emerged from the China-India discussions in New Delhi,” says C.V. Ranganathan, India’s former ambassador to China and convenor of India’s National Security Advisory Board. “These were no less important than the signals that emanated from Islamabad a little later. In fact, the language Hu used in the two capitals was identical.”
In Islamabad, Hu said: “China will continue to view its relations with Pakistan from a strategic and long-term perspective.” In New Delhi, he said he sought better relations with India not as a matter of political expediency, but saw them “from a strategic and long-term perspective”.
Ranganathan believes the China and India “are acutely aware of the likely impact or their relationship at the global and regional level” and are looking forward to strengthening their mutual cooperation.
Especially significant is the growing potential for Sino-Indian trade, which is currently running at 20 billion US dollars and is expected to double in the next four years. China hopes to raise it trade volume with Pakistan more modestly, from the current 4.5 billion dollars to 15 billion dollars by 2010.
In one commercial respect, however, Pakistan has done better than India. This is an agreement for free trade between China and Pakistan and a special economic zone near Lahore. Indian policymakers are somewhat sceptical about the likely benefits of a free trade arrangement with China, which keeps its currency deliberately undervalued.
China, which describes itself as an “all-weather friend” of Pakistan, has offered to build six more nuclear power reactors in Pakistan, in addition to the existing 350 Mw plant at Chashma and another reactor that it is now constructing.
Although India has not signed a specific agreement on buying Chinese reactors, the two governments have agreed to explore civilian nuclear cooperation. This is considered a significant confidence-building measure: China has been deeply suspicious of India’s nuclear pursuits and was sharply critical of India’s nuclear tests of May 1998. Some Indian analysts see the new nuclear cooperation agreement as New Delhi’s way of neutralising China’s opposition.
In the military field, China and Pakistan have further strengthened their already well-developed relationship. China has agreed to sell Pakistan airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), presumably to match India’s growing collaboration with Israel in this regard. China will also jointly build with Pakistan a new fighter plane called the JF-17 Thunder.
However, China has been at pains to stress that it will not allow its growing relations with either of the two of South Asian countries to jeopardise its ties with the other. “This important break came 10 years ago during President Jiang Zemin’s visit to India and Pakistan”, says Mohanty. “China has since built further on this principle of separation to normalise its relations with India despite several disputes and irritants.”
Among these are border disputes which go back 50 years, over which India and China fought a war in 1962. China is not pleased with India’s support for the Dalai Lama, who has a government in exile in India. During Hu’s visit, India clamped down on Tibetan protesters.
The two governments have agreed to put the border dispute on the backburner for the moment. But they are much closer to an agreement to resolve the dispute than ever before.
In the arena of global trade, they have agreed to coordinate their positions in the Doha round of World Trade Organisation talks.
In India, Hu outlined a broad perspective: “The course we chart and the pace of our development have major implications for peace and development of Asia and beyond,” he said, stressing India and China’s “common interests” in advancing “multi-polarity” in the world and democratising international relations.
Hu said China does not seek “any selfish gains” in South Asia, and wants to play “a constructive role” in promoting peace and development in the region.
“No matter what happens in the international environment, China will remain a champion of peace, development and cooperation,” Hu said. ”It will continue to pursue an independent foreign policy of peace, peaceful development, and opening-up strategy for mutual benefit and win-win progress.”
Hu said that the development endeavours of China and India are “not mutually exclusive. China sincerely welcomes India’s development, supports a greater role for India in international affairs, and sincerely wishes India even greater achievements in the years to come.” This was seen as a welcome signal in India.
“The real question is whether Chinese and Indian leaders have the resolve to exploit their growing strength in the world to demand alternative approaches in the domains of economic policy, conflict resolution by peaceful means, and opposition to hegemonism”, argues Lawrence Surendra, a former UNESCO consultant and a scholar of North-South relations, currently based in Mysore.
“If they show that vision and the will to develop radical strategies, they could make a huge difference to the world,” adds Surendra. “But this means that their leaders will have to follow non-market-based economic approaches domestically, and try to provide a countervailing force to the U.S-dominated security order globally. It’s not clear that they can summon up the will. But they have made a good beginning even if it’s hesitant and tentative.”