The year 2013 has been an eventful one for India-China relations. For the first time in five decades, the leaders of the two countries visited each other’s capital in the same year (the last visit was in the year 1954). The last decade has seen an aggregate of 72 back and forth visits by the leaders of the two countries. Why is the visit so important? Will it help in fostering better bilateral ties?
Perhaps the stage for the present visit was already set by the two previous visits by Salman Khurshid and Li Keqiang. Manmohan Singh’s three-day visit (22-24 October 2013) to Beijing has been a ‘triumph of diplomacy over hysteria and rhetorical sabre-rattling’ which is evident from the list of nine agreement/MOUs signed.
Amongst all the agreements/MOUs, the Border Defence Agreement (BDA) was the most closely watched during the visit because of the incursion in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of the Depsang Valley in Ladakh by the PLA. While most of the articles look general in nature, Article III talks about the proper mechanism for the agreement’s implementation, which should help in avoiding any future incursion. The BDCA has expanded the scope of the CBM on border talks and the ten agreements provide a template to talk on the impending border issue.
The MOU on the Nalanda University is a step further in the bilateral relationship as it involves the academia of both countries. Four East Asian Summit (EAS) countries (Article IX) will be part of this initiative. It will be an international institution which will help in building an ‘Asian Community’. This will further be cemented by the Cultural Exchange Programme 2013-2015, which is listed in the agreements. It includes art and culture, cultural heritage, youth affairs, education and sports, media, publications and mass communication. Additionally, this will be supported by agreements between Delhi-Beijing, Bengaluru–Chengdu and Kolkata–Kunming on the establishment of ‘Sister City’ relationships. Such agreements are often made between geographically and politically distinct areas to promote cultural and commercial ties and improve people-to-people contact or track III diplomacy. Although China already has this agreement with many countries, this is the first of its kind with India, thereby adding a soft-power approach to bilateral relations.
The trans-border rivers issue has been contentious in bilateral relations. The present visit has expanded cooperation on trans-border rivers cooperation through the existing mechanism. The agreement on roads (National Highways) and road transportation (transportation of both passengers and goods by road) that is valid for five years recognises the importance of roads as an important aspect of economic development. Connectivity between India and China has been a major issue of which road infrastructure is the most important one – China is far ahead of India in this sector. The BCIM initiative is directly connected to this initiative.
The proposal on the power sector was mooted during the SED Working Group Meeting on Energy that took place in Beijing on 26 September 2013, and it saw fructification during the present visit. Notably, India is a market for Chinese power equipment; it was agreed to set up Power Equipment Service Centres in India by Chinese suppliers and manufacturers (Article II).
Importance of Visit
The visit has shown that the India-China relationship has grown over time. Apart from economic and strategic issues, it also covered cultural and social issues. Rather than only concentrating on track I issues it has moved to track II and III as well. The second meeting of the India China CEO Forum was also held during the same time as the visit. The developments of this visit will be taken forward during the third SED in November/December 2013. As a result of these visits, the year 2014 has been marked as the year of friendly exchange.
On the flip side, issues of bilateral and international concerns were discussed. However, developments in the Indian Ocean Region, the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific theatre were skipped. In contemporary times, these international issues are affecting the bilateral relations much.
The visit has definitely given Indian leaders an insight into the new leadership of Beijing and enabled them to understand the domestic evolution of Chinese politics. The development of these agreements will help in prioritising areas of cooperation in the future.
(The writer, Ms Teshu Singh is Senior Research Officer, China Research Project, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. This article is published under a joint programme to assess the India-China October 2013 agreements of the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the IPCS, Email: email@example.com )