Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s forthcoming India visit on 16-17 December is the strategic flavour of the month. The visit comes soon after the visit of the US President to India. Reports indicate that Wen Jiabao will visit Pakistan after finishing his New Delhi trip. While Wen’s India visit may not gather the same media attention in India like the US President’s visit in November, this is surely a chance to enable the highest leadership of China and India to rethink about what went wrong between them recently and why their previous accords have failed to stabilize the relationship. On its part, India would expect the visiting Chinese Premier to spell out China’s position on a number of strategic issues. The visit comes at a time when the two countries’ strategic spheres of influence have increased greatly. While China has eclipsed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy, India is being considered somewhat seriously as a potential candidate for permanent UN Security Council (UNSC) membership after Barack Obama’s open articulation.
The tactical milieu of Wen Jiabao’s forthcoming India visit is linked with his April 2005 tour when he came to India for the first time. However, the setting for the forthcoming visit was established during Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to East Asia where the Indian Prime Minister stated that both parties ‘need to show sensitivity to each other’s core issues’. In addition, the Indian Prime Minister also noted that the ‘world is large enough to accommodate both China and India’s ambitions’. Wen Jiabao responded by declaring that he would visit India in December 2010. In the meantime, both countries have tried their best to prepare a ‘well-knitted’ ground for open talks during Wen’s India visit. In fact, both China and India held the 14th round of the special representatives level talks on boundary issue in Beijing in the last week of November. This latest round of was significant in that it ‘preceded the final senior-level’ dialogue between the two parties on the border issue.
Two significant agreements related to the boundary issue have previously been signed in 1993 and 1996; and then the April 2005 agreement promised a political guiding principle on the demarcation of the boundary between China and India. Despite these agreements, differences on the boundary issue have only expanded. They have seen each other more as strategic competitors, looking to cut their own niche in their style and influence. While it may not be easy to remove these competitive elements, rising complications between them need to be addressed through dialogue and direct bilateral dealings at the highest political level. That makes Wen Jiabao’s visit more significant.
During Wen Jiabao’s visit to India in April 2005, the two countries signed an Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Boundary Question. That visit saw the two sides implementing twelve Memoranda on a range of strategic issues. The “strategic partnership for peace and cooperation” formulated during the 2005 visit was to “resolve longstanding” border disputes and boost trade and economic cooperation. While the 2005 strategic partnership ethos provided adequate impetus for the greater growth of bilateral trade and commerce to an extent, the approach to solve the boundary issue has stalled because of China’s repeated irrational claims over Arunachal Pradesh.
Thus, Wen Jiabao’s trip to India calls for clarity in the Chinese position on a range of bilateral issues related to the boundary and greater precision over issues like the stamped visa for residents of Jammu & Kashmir, visa denial to Lt Gen B.S. Jaswal, and the emerging concerns over water. On China’s part, the most pressing point would be to amend the Chinese policy stance on issuing stapled visas to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, which largely questions India’s sovereignty over this state. While the 2005 MoU spoke of sharing “hydrological information” in Sutlej/Langqen Zangbo River in flood situations, Chinese dam construction in its part of the Brahmaputra Valley calls for greater dialogue. Two other strategic issues that are important from India’s perspective are the planned Sino-Pakistani rail line from Xinjiang to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the Pakistani President Zardari’s call for regular Chinese investments in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. India must expect Wen Jiabao to clarify China’s stance on these issues.
While there are a whole host of security and strategic issues that can be addressed, the one that invites greater attention at the moment between China and India is the extent of their economic relations. Bilateral trade is targeted to touch $60 billion soon: in fact, the growing trade figure has been the single most stabilizing factor in Sino-Indian relations. The prime necessity would be to focus on massive bilateral economic engagement, mainly when the two countries hold similar strategic positions in the global economic scenario within a grouping like the BRIC. In this regard, the first strategic task is to balance bilateral trade. China figures as India’s largest trading partner, while India is ranked much below in the Chinese trading partner index. China’s annual exports to India are worth $27 billion; India’s exports to China are about $11billion. Wen Jiabao had assured the Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma in Beijing in January 2010 that the two countries would like to work closely to address their growing trade imbalance; he should use his forthcoming visit to carry out this promise. In fact, in the eighth round of the India-China Joint Economic Group (JEG) in New Delhi, India had expressed the desire to increase its exports to China. India would like to see China import more in IT and Information Technology Enabled Service (ITES) from it, removing tariff and non-tariff barriers. This also calls for the removal of Chinese restrictions on import of Indian items like Basmati rice, fruits and vegetables, films and Indian television channels. There are also procedural blockages and time-consuming licensing processes in exporting Indian medical products to China.
More than security and economics-related issues, what invites greater India-China debate during Wen Jiabao’s visit are energy and cooperation in multilateral forums, which have become contentious issues recently between the two countries. Very often Chinese and Indian companies have competed to win overseas bids for securing energy deals in the Gulf, Central Asia and Africa and, recently, Myanmar. A political understanding could help secure better terms and deals rather than always fighting through competitive bids. At the same time, they also need to work to create options to start constructing joint pipeline and big infrastructure projects. The current strategic requisite between the two countries is to build a global understanding. A kind of a beginning was made in this regard in 2005 when an MoU was agreed upon to expand the India-China “financial dialogue” under which the two countries were expected to promote similar ideas. While all these global issues require leadership maturity on both sides, India’s prime expectation from Wen Jiabao would be to get Chinese political support for India’s candidature for permanent membership in the UN Security Council. Time has arrived for China to show greater clarity and maturity by taking an open stance on these issues.
The year 2010 is being celebrated as the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between India and China. Preceding Wen Jiabao’s April 2005 visit to India, China decided to remove Sikkim from the list of contentious issues between the two countries. But there have been constant contradictions in the Chinese position and approach over the boundary and various strategic issues. Wen Jiabao’s visit provides definite ground to bring better clarity on the Chinese stance over a range of critical issues to the Indian people, and to ask whether the sentiments expressed in 2005 were merely rhetorical. Though Wen Jiabao would retire soon from active politics in China, there is a chance for him to be remembered in the India-China discourse as a ‘strategic’ prophet. Manmohan Singh has eulogized him as the ‘architect’ of the strategic cooperative partnership between India and China. No matter what the Chinese Premier brings to the table for discussion, the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century definitely provides an opportunity for the leadership on both sides to once again address the complexities of their relationship on the benchmark of practicality.
Dr. Jagannath P. Panda is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi