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India and China: An Asseessment of October 2103 Agreements

An Overview of Contemporary Issues and Relations

History will acknowledge the Year 2013 as a good one for India-China relations. That this was during the last phase of the UPA II rule in India and when the Government was not enjoying a particularly good year domestically, should add to the credit of both. This, despite the fact that no new ground was laid nor any new path broken that would lead to an early resolution of outstanding issues. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s October meetings in Beijing, perhaps his last to China as the nation’s highest representative, will be remembered as a solid workmanlike visit that if carried forward, has the potential to lead to better things.

Both China’s top new leaders engaged with India this year. Xi Jinping met the PM at Durban on Mar 28 at the BRICS Summit. Li Keqiang paid an official visit to Delhi and Mumbai on May 19-21 in what was his first overseas visit after assuming the post of Premier. It is to the credit of China’s new leaders that in their first year in office, they have shown interest in improving relations with India.

Xi Jinping was very forthcoming at his Durban meeting. He called on maintaining high level and increased reciprocal visits and contacts and strengthening strategic and political communication between both countries. He called on the armed forces on both sides to deepen mutual security trust and broaden exchanges and cooperation. Xi also called for both countries to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution to the border dispute “as soon as possible”.

In the joint statement at the end of the visit Li Keqiang and Manmohan Singh stuck to the formula that “India and China have a historic opportunity for economic and social development and that the realization of this goal will advance peace and prosperity in Asia and the world at large”. The joint statement also referred to progress in all other areas where cooperation was being addressed between the two countries.

Let us have no illusions as to what led to these overtures. The US pivot to Asia, the present stand-off in South China Sea with ASEAN countries, as well as the contestation over Daiyoutai/Senkaku islands with Japan all adversely affect China. North Korea’s apparent autonomous position regarding its nuclear weapons and Tokyo under Abe becoming a ‘normal’ state with an Army and a more robust military capability, have all opened up many flanks for China.

Along with this are the major domestic issues that keep the Chinese leaders awake at night. This includes how to legitimize the rule of the Chinese Communist Party over the entire nation? Correct the economic slow down and meet the challenges of a political transition at home. The nation of Sun Zi will not allow so many fronts to open up simultaneously. India offers a good opportunity to close at least one. While China does not consider India as a serious adversary, in combination and partnership with other powers and the USA it merits attention.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China in October came at an opportune time for both sides to look seriously at mending fences. The Border Defense Cooperation Agreement was appropriate to reduce possibilities of a clash on the border. Of course the BDCA did not go far enough. A significant step even before border finalization would involve; separation of forces, not increasing troop presence or undertaking military activity close to the border. This would call for a buffer or a no-man’s land. But, India cannot be expected to agree to it. China already has a large advantage and India has limited or no ability to close this infrastructure gap. Till then greater transparency of military activities and resolving these issues through increased border contacts would have to suffice.

Another measure would be increasing military to military contacts at other levels and joint exercises. These were started and were going well till permission for a visit was denied by China to a senior Indian military commander in Jammu & Kashmir. Resuming senior military to military contacts and visits and increasing their frequency would help eradicate suspicion.

Many more steps would be required before the border issue is resolved. The Tibetan question is paramount among them. As long as India wishes to use the Tibetan card we will have wait and watch. Meanwhile the move forward on sharing information on the Himalayan rivers is welcome. Measures such as these if implemented sincerely will act as additional confidence building measures. As would a liberal visa regime which would result in greater contact among peoples. Among all countries of the world India has probably the least people to people and civilizational contact with China. A liberal visa regime should address this earliest.

To meet the aspirations and opportunities of the 21st Century will need greater cooperation between India and China. A task before the next government in Delhi would be to fulfill this for the good of the people of India.

(The writer Maj. Gen. Dipankar Banerjee, is Mentor of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) New Delhi. This article is published under a joint programme to cover the India-China October 2013 agreements between the Chennai Centre for China and Studies and the IPCS).

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