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President Patil's China Visit- Looking Through the Bamboo Curtain

The Chinese can be very gracious in form when they want. They are aware that in India, the President is only the titular head of the country. He or she acts on the advice of the cabinet headed by the Prime Minister, and it is the Prime Minister who represents the nation at the highest level.

Yet, President Pratibha Devsingh Patil, who arrived in Beijing on May 26 for a six-day visit to commemorate the 60th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations, was given unprecedented access to all the top five Chinese leaders including Xi Jinping, the putative CCP General secretary, President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC).

The reporting on the visit by the Chinese official media, and the independent Indian print media (visit was almost ignored by the Indian electronic media), suggest somewhat two different stories.

The Indian media based the more important issues on briefings by Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, and some information picked up on the sidelines. Foreign Secretary Rao, a veteran of China experience at the best and worst of times, briefed the Indian media in a careful and calibrated manner.

Describing President Patil’s meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as positive, she let it be known that China had agreed to support India’s candidature to the non-permanent 15-member UN Security Council Seat for 2010-2012.

On the issue of India’s quest for a permanent seat in an expanded UN Security Council of five countries, the Chinese stuck to their already stated line – that China supports a greater role for India in the UN, and India’s aspirations.

On the historical and cultural issues, significant progress was noted. The inauguration of an Indian temple next to the White Horse temple in Luoyang by Ms. Patil, a living history of Buddhism travelling to China, was the high point.

President Patil was also escorted to the on-going Shanghai Exposition, an exhibition of the great progress China has made in all fields since 1978 – a salute to the country’s greatest visionary and leader Deng Xiaoping who brought about the policy of opening up to the outside world and market socialism. Visitors to the Shanghai Expo, especially leaders from all over the world, were to be suitably awed by this extravaganza, a follow up on the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Reporting on President Patils’s meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao, National People’s Congress (NPC) Chairman Wu Bangguo, and President Hu Jintao, the Chinese official media expectedly took the scripted party and government line, which obviously projected the direction in which they wanted India to address the bilateral relationship.

None of the three most important media entities, the CCP’s mouthpiece and the most authentic publication The People’s Daily (May 28) and The China Daily (May 28) which comments on foreign policy issues, and the news agency Xinhua, mentioned neither China’s support to India’s candidature for the 15-member non-permanent UN seat, nor on China’s position on India’s aspiration for a permanent UN Security Council seat as and when the Perm 5 is expanded.

Only the Global Times (May 28), a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, which experiments on probing reactions, mentioned that President Patil asked China’s support for New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, but did not say what the Chinese response was. It only quoted a scholar at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), to say that China would not put obstacles to India’s bid. The CICIR is affiliated to the Party Central Committee and the Ministry for External Intelligence.

The China Daily also quoted some other Chinese scholars to look at India’s trade imbalance with China, and that the Indian President’s tour would also help to lessen and prevent clashes on the border and improve trust and relations between the militaries of the two countries.

The Chinese leaders from Hu Jintao downwards emphasized on improved relations, building trust and removing trade obstacles and barriers.

The talks reflected Beijing’s concerns on India clamping down on inundation of cheap Chinese goods, and other trade restrictions. Without naming, China asked India to review certain restrictions on Chinese telecommunication companies like Hua Wei Technologies and ZTE.

Finally, it must be noted that Wu Bangguo, who is also a high level member of CCP politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), told Ms. Patil, that the “two sides should understand and respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, properly handle differences, and seek common development and a win-win situation”.

The nine-member PBSC is the ultimate governing body of China. Wu Bangguo is the fifth in this pecking order. The message from China is, therefore, the first shot impressing upon India to review its position on hosting the Dalai Lama and his Kashag (Cabinet). India has been given time to address this issue as China views, notwithstanding India’s recognition of Tibet as an integral part of China (2003), New Delhi is responsible along with the US and other Western countries, in keeping the Dalai Lama’s, “autonomous status for Tibet” argument alive. The critical issue is that India and Tibet share a common border which gives the Dalai Lama and his supporters in India access to Tibet.

The Wu Bangguo’s message suggests that China is aware of India’s core interest, that is Kashmir, and China can play with it. In a recent visit to Pakistan (May 24), Chinese Defence Minister Wu Guanglie assured Pakistan’s Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar that China would “continue to support Pakistan’s stance on different issues at every international forum”.

It was a significant commitment from China. In the international fora, Pakistan’s positions are mainly on India – the Kashmir issue in particular, and the newly created water issue.

The Sino-Indian border issue is not an immediate issue for China. They are aware that they hold the key, and India has fallen into a mode to be dictated by Chinese designs.

Whether India subscribes to the policy of the Dalai Lama card or not, China believes he is an instrument that India could use to destabilize Tibet seriously and break China’s integrity. And if one part breaks out of China the others will follow quickly especially Xinjiang, and Taiwan will be recognized as an independent country by the international community. China’s assessment to this extent may be correct because its integration of minority regions has been by force of arms to which the minorities do not subscribe. Taiwan has its own legalistic position to be an independent country.

India has to design its own response and be aware that it has to fight its battle on its own. It would be disastrous if Indian policy makers rely on powers like the US for arbitration. Washington has its own priorities with Beijing which does not include any other country and least India.

The Dalai Lama is an emotional issue with people of India and no Indian government can change this status. If China tries to force this issue on India, there will be no “win-win” situation between the two, but a “lose-lose” situation.

India and China are two gorillas living in the cage of Asia. There is enough room for the two, but not enough if one tries to usurp all the space.

China has to think beyond the Dalai Lama to upgrade relations with India, and wait for the post Dalai Lama scenario. Till now, there is no evidence that Beijing has been successful in winning over the minds of the Tibetans.

There is no dearth of opportunities for China and India play on a level field for a win-win situation. The Chinese leaders received Pratibha Patil with grace and dignity. The innuendos of Mr. Wu Bangguo were not necessary in a ceremonial visit. The Mandarins of Zhongnanhai need not have thrown a rotten apple in what would have otherwise been a delicious pie. This is the problem with Beijing, and comes into the way of smooth development of relations.

(The writer,Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at

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