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Why India-China Relations Require a New Breakthrough?

President Pratibha Patil’s recent China visit like previous high level visits between India and China since 2006 failed to generate much hope and excitement on both sides of the Himalayas, albeit it did underline the cultural (Buddhist) and commercial component between India and China when she inaugurated the Indian style Buddhist complex built with an investment of 4 million US dollars next to the While Horse Monastery in Luoyang, Henan Province. Alas, the component has already been dead both in India and China long ago, and just evokes the nostalgia of the past. Economically, there was some progress as three commercial deals were signed by Wipro Infrastructure Engineering, Infosys and GMR Kamalanga Energy Ltd. with their Chinese counterparts. Besides, the President visited Indian pavilion in Shanghai Expo and unveiled a statue of the Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindernath Tagore at the Maoming Road. Politically, the visit yielded no substantial results except China’s willingness to support India’s claim for a non-permanent seat at the United Nations.

It appears that the political intent for these visits have dried up in both the countries, for none of the visits since Wen Jiabao’s 2005 visit could generate enough political trust and hope for a better futuristic relationship. Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit is considered path breaking and defrosting the icy India-China relations. Narsimha Rao’s 1993 China visit and Jiang Zemin’s 1996 India visit brought a thaw in the relations, and more importantly both India and China successfully concluded the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC, and the agreement on confidence building measures (CBMs) in the military field along the LAC in India China border areas respectively. Vajpayee’s 2003 China visit and even Wen Jiabao’s 2005 India visit could also be considered historic and path breaking in one or other context. However, the mechanisms, the confidence building measures being exception, established during various visits, especially the Joint Working Group and Special Representatives appears to have failed to achieve the desired goals. Other memorandums of understanding pertaining to cooperation in outer space, hybridisation technologies, peaceful application of nuclear energy, genetic engineering, agriculture, hydrological data sharing, and many others are just agreements on paper. Patil’s statement that “mutual awareness about each other and mutual understanding of each other’s sensitivities will hold the key to deeper and sturdier friendship” between the two nations during her address to a select gathering at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven confirms how little we know about each other and the perennial trust deficit’ that forbid a healthy political and economic bilateral relations. It is for this reason that even after 36 rounds of talks (8 before 1988, 15 between the JWGs and 13 between the Special Representatives) in last three decades fails to settle the border issue. Some of the Chinese academia told this author during his visit to Shanghai Expo recently that they had brought the issue of Indian maps depicting large tracts of Chinese territory (read Arunachal) inside Indian international boundary to the notice of the organizers as well as the Chinese government. One may ask whether China has shown any sensitivity towards the Indian claim in the Western Sector (Aksai Chin) while displaying its maps in India. Unilateral modification of the maps in uncalled for; the question is whether both the countries are willing to show the disputed areas under their jurisdiction as disputed or not?

Though after the normalization of relations, China has taken a neutral position on Kashmir, however, the slight deterioration of relations has forced China to revisit its pre 1970s stand on Kashmir, as manifested by the events after India exploded nuclear devices in 1998. India is apprehensive about China arming Pakistan to teeth including the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Its ‘string of pearl’ strategy to counter and contain India in South Asia and beyond has made polemics in India skeptical about Beijing’s designs. India’s dialogues with the US, Australia and Japan has prompted China to issue demarches to India; and recent US-India strategic dialogue has forced the experts from China’s Institute for Contemporary International Studies, a government think tank to say that the India-US dialogue ‘may put more pressure on China’; some critics were even paranoid to say that India is ‘seeking parity’ with China, while others quoting Taiwan’s Central New Agency said ‘the US refrained from talking India’s claim for permanent seat in the United Nations.’

It is visible through reports that how much anxiety, and at times paranoia the development and economic rise of India and China has been creating on either side of the Himalayas. Even the recent 8.5% Indian economic growth rate in the first quarter of 2010 has made the columnists in China to comment that ‘the growth is aimed at China.’ The need of the hour is not to create an atmosphere that is not congenial for bilateral understanding, but to overhaul and look for new breakthroughs so as to enhance mutual understanding and build trust. And to build this trust we may look at various possibilities. One such possibility of having a new breakthrough in India-China relations is China’s support for India’s aspirations for a permanent membership to the UN Security Council. India has supported China’s case in the UN over 30 times, and even after the 1962 war. China’s support for India will create enormous goodwill for China in India and the bilateral relations could touch a new high. Academia in China has openly expressed their support for the Indian claim, however, the government is tightlipped, and its guarded and cautious approach on the issue has not gone well in India. Will it repeat the Nuclear Suppliers Group kind of support at Geneva for India’s permanent seat at the UN or will it lead from the front and earn an unprecedented level of goodwill in India?

Other possibilities that have been often deliberated and explored upon, and do not carry the weight and effect of China’s support for India’s UN seat are: more and wider people to people contacts and a relaxed visa regime. The media to media relations that have generally been neglected need to be strengthened and direct access to news channels in either country is another possibility. In this regard, India needs to increase its reporters’ strength in China with the knowledge of Chinese, so as the Indian public get more and objective news stories about different aspects of China. The initiation of conducting Cultural Festivals on either side is another activity that will enhance mutual understanding. Last but not least, it is time for India and China to develop healthy trade relations and exploit their respective potentials. The icon of China’s reforms and sinicized socialism Deng Xiaoping has remarked, “If China and India are developed, we can say that we have made our contribution to mankind.” It is this vision which India and China should emulate so as the millions of people are brought out from the morass of poverty and hunger. Moreover, in order to reduce their technological dependence on western countries, both India and China need to operationalize the agreements they have concluded in the field of science and technology. Today when we talk of this cooperation and future of India China relations, the same must be viewed in the larger perspective of India China historical bonds vis-à-vis their interests and future outlook.

( The writer, Dr. B R Deepak, is Associate Professor in the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.He could be reached at bdeepak@mail.jnu.ac.in)

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