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India and the Outgoing Chinese Leadership: Change with Continuity

Dr. R. N. Das is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 14, 2012

    A new pantheon of leaders will take the reins of power in the People’s Republic of China in March 2013, and the baton will be handed down to a new regime under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the incumbent Vice-President, who has already been declared the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and is tipped to step into the exalted office of the President of China. Similarly, the current Vice-Premier Li Keqiang is sure to succeed the present Premier Wen Jiabao. In a system of collective leadership, and more so in a communist system, a change of leadership should not normally affect the bilateral relationship between any two countries since the relationship is interest driven and not governed by personal likes and dislikes although personal comfort level and chemistry between leaders at times do play a role.

    It is worthwhile in this context to put on record the achievements in the India-China bilateral relationship during the regime of the outgoing Chinese leadership over the last decade, and particularly of the trio—President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and State Counsellor Dai Bingguo who is also China’s Special Representative to the mechanism of Sino-Indian border talks. Those in the Chinese leadership who will step down also include 71 year old General Liang Guanglie, China’s Defence Minister, who visited India recently. Over the years a degree of comfort level has been established between the leadership of the two countries at the highest political level. It is believed that Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has met the Chinese President and Premier about 20 times over these years, out of which he has met his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao about 13 times in the last few years. Incidentally, Prime Minister Singh is shortly going to meet Wen Jiabao on the occasion of the East Asia Summit being held in Phnom Penh in Cambodia this week. In all probability, this would be their last meeting.

    A noticeable aspect of the close political relationship between the two countries is the fact that in spite of changes in regimes the relationship has continued to grow. For example, the landmark visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China during which the Joint Working Group (JWG) was set up was carried forward by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1993 when a Confidence Building Measure—the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Area—was signed. The 1993 Agreement asserted that the boundary question shall be resolved through friendly consultations and that neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other. Rao’s visit to China was followed by the visit of President Jiang Zemin to India in November 1996 during which the Agreement on CBMs in the military field along the Line of Actual Control was signed. Six years later, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee heading the National Democratic Alliance Government paid a visit to China in 2003, which was significant on many counts. Firstly, the two countries recognised that their common interests outweigh their differences. Secondly, they stated that they do not pose a threat to each other and that neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other. Thirdly, while India recognised the Tibet Autonomous Region as a part of the People’s Republic of China, China by agreeing to open Nathu La Pass through Sikkim for border trade recognised India’s sovereignty over the state. Finally, the two sides agreed to each appoint a Special Representative to explore, from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship, the framework of a boundary settlement. The 15th round of border talks in this new framework was concluded in New Delhi in January 2012. The next breakthrough in the relationship was achieved during the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao to India in April 2005. While Prime Minister Singh himself described the outcome of the visit as substantive, Premier Wen called it ‘historic’. During the visit the two Prime Ministers signed a joint statement and agreed to establish a “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity”. In a suo motu statement in Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Singh said the Joint Statement

    “codifies the consensus between us that India-China relations transcend bilateral issues and have now acquired a global and strategic character. The partnership also reflects our desire to proactively resolve outstanding differences, while not letting them come in the way of continued development of relations. This is not in the nature of a military pact or alliance but reflects a congruence of purpose apart from a common perception of world events.”

    One of the continuing links with India of the new regime in Beijing would be Ma Xiaotian, who was recently named commander of the Air Force after holding the post of deputy chief of the general staff. Ma had visited India earlier in December 2011 to participate in the Annual Defence Dialogue. At a time when the PLA is assuming a greater say in foreign policy issues, Ma’s acquaintance with India, its leaders, issues and the political, military and diplomatic processes would be useful for greater understanding and cooperation between the two countries.

    Though Xi Jinping has visited most countries in the world including the United States and nearer home countries in South East Asia including Myanmar, his visit to India is yet to take place and, now, it looks like it will not take place any time soon. If he were to visit India soon after assuming the office of President, that will certainly send a positive signal. The only important Indian political leader whom he has met so far is the former President of India Smt. Pratibha Devisingh Patil in 2010. Besides, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon had a meeting with him in 2010. The visit of Vice-President of India Mr. Hamid Ansari to China is also yet to take place. It is likely that once the leadership issue in China settles down, it would be appropriate for the Vice-President to pay a visit to China and extend an invitation, on behalf of the President of India, to President designate Xi to visit India at a mutually convenient date. It would also be appropriate on the part of Defence Minster A. K. Antony to return the visit of his counterpart to India. New Delhi should proactively engage the new Chinese leadership in China. Here, some suggestions that New Delhi could consider are:

    1. For better coordination, the existing institutional mechanisms and dialogue structures need to be further strengthened at various levels including political, diplomatic, military and bureaucratic.
    2. There should be an institutional arrangement for annual meetings between the Foreign Ministers of the two countries, as envisaged in the 2005 agreement. At present, the two Foreign Ministers meet only occasionally, and sometimes on the margins of multilateral meetings.
    3. In future, there should also be annual meetings between the two Prime Ministers.
    4. The idea of a US-India-China trilateral needs to be pondered over.
    5. To have trust and transparency, the outcomes of the trilateral meetings among the United States, Japan and India should be shared with China by the three countries.
    6. To generate better understanding, there needs to be an exchange of Parliamentary delegations and exchange of the leaders of political parties. Now that the Chairmen of India’s two Houses of Parliament are former diplomats, it is all the more appropriate for an exchange of Parliamentary delegations.