Combining high-level visits with trade has benefited New Delhi, Beijing

Ever since Pakistan agreed to take trade with India off the taboo list, senior officials here have been talking of following the India-China model of combining high-level visits with trade to improve New Delhi-Islamabad ties.

But it was Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari who brought this approach to the fore during the lunch hosted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday. Mr. Zardari said though India had several issues of discord with China, their trade ties were booming. He suggested that the India-China model could help improve the relations between India and Pakistan.

High-level officials have been pointing out that more than action against Hafiz Saeed, this visit could begin the trend of top leaders meeting each other more frequently so that issues that appear to be getting nowhere in talks with bureaucrats — such as the stapled visa issue with China — could be resolved to reduce ill will.

Frequent interaction

As the officials noted, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has met the present Chinese President and the Prime Minister over 20 times in the past five years and this pattern of frequent interaction has spilled over to senior Ministers and bureaucrats.

This has led to the two countries putting in place several confidence-building and trust deficit-reducing measures such as a joint mechanism to remove irritants in patrolling the contested sections of the border, coordinating the safe passage of their ships through piracy-prone waters and resolving to open dialogue on maritime issues.

Balance of trade

But officials agreed with Mr. Zardari that it was trade that provided the initial ballast to India-China ties and with a second round of economic strategic dialogue in the horizon, they are also on course to address the problem areas which, from the Indian point of view, are the skewed balance of trade in Beijing's favour and limited access of New Delhi's export mainstays — pharmaceuticals and Information and Technology.

While he skipped mentioning the importance of high-level visits that help both sides appreciate the other's domestic compulsions, Mr. Zardari mentioned the third, equally important but underplayed aspect that has improved India-China ties — an incremental or ‘step-by-step' approach for tackling contentious issues.

This has been at work in normalising India-Pakistan trade but has not met Islamabad's expectations of resolving what it calls the core political issues — Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek.

Before the two principals moved in for lunch, they spoke of need to step up the volume of trade by easing restrictions, some of which are over four decades-old.

Although Pakistan insists that Kashmir is the core issue and the genesis of bad blood between the two countries, the Prime Minister appreciated the fact that Islamabad has moved forward on trade-related issues, according to Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai.