New Turn In China-India Relations

5 December 2006
Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India surpassed the upbeat expectations and showed that the two countries have more in common than earlier imagined, reports Bidwai.

If there's one thing that can be said confidently about Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to India, it's that it surpassed some of the upbeat expectations it had raised. The true measure of its success doesn't lie in the two governments' commitment to doubling their bilateral trade to $40 billion by 2010, nor even in the remarkably large number (13) of agreements they signed on issues as varied as science, space exploration, agriculture, education, tourism and nuclear energy. Rather, it lies in the fact that they confirmed they have more in common than earlier imagined, and resolved to build a broad-horizon relationship in a remarkably relaxed manner.

Mr Hu came here against an unfortunate backdrop: Ambassador Sun Yuxi's statement reiterating China's claim to Arunachal Pradesh. But the negative effect of this undiplomatic repetition of Beijing's old position was soon wiped out. Mr Hu made it clear that for Beijing, the significance of the Sino-Indian relationship is not merely bilateral, nor defined by political expediency. It views it "from a strategic and long-term perspective". He used these very words in describing Sino-Pakistan relations, which have traditionally been far closer.

India had four major concerns arising from recent developments: China's position on common river waters, especially the Brahmaputra, which it is allegedly diverting; Beijing's commitment to delinking its relations with Pakistan from those with India; its likely stand on Asian-level cooperation involving India; and China's attitude to the United States-India nuclear deal and to India's claim to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

All four concerns were addressed during Mr Hu's visit. India and China agreed to set up an expert-level committee on four rivers, including the Brahmaputra. Mr Hu repeatedly emhasised that the principle of separation in China's relations with India and Pakistan remains important and informs the wide-ranging agenda that New Delhi and Beijing have agreed to pursue.

China also supported India's proposals for greater coordination between the "BCIM countries" (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) and the so-called East Asia Initiative. This means China is prepared to accommodate India in Southeast and East Asia as a dialogue partner.

Most important, Mr Hu assured Indian leaders that China would not stand in the way of getting the US-India nuclear deal approved in the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group, of which it is a member. Nor does China oppose India's Security Council bid, although matters are complicated by India's G-4 strategy: China doesn't want Japan to be a permanent Council member.

It would be naive to expect China to proactively recommend the nuclear deal to the NSG-unless the Group makes a generic, not India-specific, exception to its nuclear commerce norms. In all likelihood, China will wait to see how other Group members react before it reveals its own position. But it's not insignificant that China won't lead the opposition to India-as it did after the 1998 nuclear tests. It's equally important to note that a Sino-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation agreement would have been inconceivable only a few years ago.

Evidently, China has decided to change its earlier strategy to contain India because it recognises India's growing global importance and influence. It's in this light that we must see Mr Hu's pronouncements during his public address in Delhi, where he stressed India and China's "common interests" in democratising international relations and "developing multilateral cooperation for creating a multi-polar world." Mr Hu said China doesn't seek "any selfish gains" in South Asia, but wants to play "a constructive role" in promoting peace and development in the region.

He also said: "No matter what happens in the international environment, China will remain a champion of peace, development and cooperation. It will continue to pursue an independent foreign policy of peace, peaceful development, and … win-win progress." He said the development endeavours of China and India are "not mutually exclusive. China sincerely welcomes India's development, supports a greater role for India in international affairs, and sincerely wishes India even greater achievements in the years to come."
It's hard to dismiss all this as mere rhetoric calculated to deceive India and the rest of the world. The Chinese leadership is acutely aware that the whole wide world is watching China and India as emerging Great Powers which are home to two-fifths of humanity. A summit meeting between them today makes headline news the world over. We must wait and watch how China conducts its actual diplomacy with India in the near future. But there is little doubt that its foreign policy stance has already shifted significantly.

This opens up a historic opportunity for India and China to transform their relationship from one of rivalry in the past, to a fruitful partnership today. India would be ill-advised to play a "balance-of-power game" with China, as it is being urged to do by our pitiably pro-US strategic experts who have no compunctions in demanding that India enter to into a junior partnership with Washington, which will, among other things, contain and counter China.

This is not to argue that all's well with the Sino-Indian relationship. Several outstanding disputes and disagreements remain. The border dispute cannot be wished away. But it's undeniable that India and China are closer than ever to resolving it. While they must make a sincere attempt at its resolution, India should not allow the dispute to come in the way of deepening its relations with China in other areas-including trade, investment, cultural exchanges, science and technology collaboration, and greater people-to-people interaction.

India shouldn't be overly concerned at the growth of Sino-Pakistan relations and Mr Hu's signing of 18 separate agreements in Islamabad. China and Pakistan have long seen themselves as strategic partners or allies and had a qualitatively special military relationship. This is now reflected in China's offer to sell airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) to Pakistan, presumably to help it match India's growing capacities, themselves aided by Israel and the US. India too has its allies, supporters and arms providers.

We are often reminded by China-baiters that China probably transferred some clandestine nuclear technology to Pakistan in the 1980s. But China also sold heavy water to India, not to speak of enriched uranium for Tarapur. It's unlikely that today's China, keen to appear a "responsible" global player, will want to behave the way it earlier did.

It would be imprudent to let past perceptions and attitudes intrude into the present to a point where no cooperative relationship can be built with China on normal, honourable and respectable terms. Indian policy-makers must also discount the new propaganda which says China is "encircling" India, by building a base at Gwadar in Balochistan. India has too much military strength to feel seriously intimidated by any of this.

Yet ironically, some of those who would like India to sustain a relationship of hostility with China demand that India should follow a completely amoral, realpolitik-based foreign policy approach, exactly like China does! Our best bet lies in Machiavellian tactics based on the "enemy's enemy is a friend" premise. We shouldn't hesitate to emulate China's cynicism-most blatantly visible when Beijing joined hands with the US against the former Soviet Union.

This is a recipe for colossal stupidity and for removing the moral backbone from foreign policy-making altogether. It'll reduce India's complex broad-horizon foreign policy to a petty exercise in promoting the "national interest"-defined totally arbitrarily. India won't earn the respect of the world if it behaves parochially, without reference to universal principles and values. t will damage its own world standing, and in the long run, even its narrow self-interest.

India can choose a radically different approach. It can to bring to bear on its foreign policy all its great strengths: as a long, continuous civilisation; as the world's largest democracy; as one of its most diverse and plural societies; its history as a campaigner for great causes like decolonisation, nuclear disarmament and abolition of apartheid and hegemonism, and an ardent advocate of a New International Economic Order, North-South equality, and fair trade. This will impart a sharp moral edge to India's policy and help it contribute to making the world a better place.

Can our leaders exploit India's growing strength in the world to demand, along with China, alternative global approaches to economic policy and management of the international order? If they develop radical alternative strategies, that could make a huge difference to the world and open up avenues of non-market-based development appropriate to the needs of underprivileged peoples and voiceless countries.

But this demands a radical change in domestic policies in the fist place, including rejection of market fundamentalism, pursuit of principled secularism, and defence and extension of human rights and freedoms. China's rulers are probably too devoted to elitism and market-based strategies to summon up the will to do any of this. But are India's rulers ready?

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.  

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