During Pratibha Patil's recent visit to China, both sides celebrated the Copenhagen spirit and affirmed to take the relationship beyond bilateral to global cooperation.
At the Asia Hotel in Beijing, Ma Jisheng, an official with the information department of the Foreign Ministry, was declaiming on millennia-old India-China relations. Suddenly he flung aside the prepared text and announced that he would speak straight from the heart: “Would the media on both sides please give India and China a chance to develop normal relations?”
The official's point was simple. Attitudes hardened when the media sensationalised issues, and the events of 2009, when bilateral relations reached a precipitous low following media frenzy and scare-mongering, proved as much. “This constant harping on border, visa and other things, is it not like eating the same food everyday?” Mr. Ma asked plaintively, adding, “I cannot help but think sometimes that China and India would solve their problems if only the media kept quiet a bit.”
The Indian media delegation accompanying President Pratibha Patil had looked upon the Asia Hotel lunch as little more than an interlude in an itinerary packed with ceremonial welcomes, meetings, inaugurations, receptions and so forth. Ornamental phraseology and practised rhetoric are the stuff of such visits, and we were naturally taken aback by Mr. Ma's plain speaking. Perhaps he was being free and frank because we were not officials but the media?
Yet as the tour — organised to coincide with the landmark 60th anniversary of the establishment of India-China diplomatic relations — progressed, it was evident that even at the highest level of the Chinese leadership there was a degree of candour and responsiveness that took the Indian side by surprise. As the presidential outing drew to a close, both sides seemed to concur that Ms Patil's visit had gone beyond the perimeter of goodwill ambassadorship to generate tangible positives for the future. A highly placed Indian official told The Hindu: “I read the visit as a clear Chinese signal to have better relations with us.”
It certainly helped that Ms Patil arrived in Beijing at a time when India-China relations were seen to be on the mend after a difficult year characterised by intense mistrust on both sides. The irritants seemed daunting enough on their own: China's angst over the Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh, and the Indian unhappiness at stapled visas, not to mention apprehensions over Chinese-assisted construction in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). But aided by irresponsible speculation on an upcoming war, they began to look insurmountable. In July 2009, the editor of an Indian defence magazine prophesied that China would attack India by 2012. A month later, a so-called Chinese strategist posted a web article that argued that China with some effort could indeed balkanise India.
Neither of the articles was officially authorised. Yet, together, they assumed a life of their own with commentators in India hyperventilating about China's hidden agenda, and the Chinese media and think tanks contributing their bit to the rising hysteria.
While it may be difficult to locate the precise point when tensions began to ease up, analysts on both sides agree that India and China were well served by the “Copenhagen spirit.” This is a euphemism for the exemplary cooperation witnessed in the Danish capital during the December 2009 Climate Change summit. India and China so finely coordinated their negotiating positions at the talks that the online edition of the German magazine, Der Spiegel, was provoked to put out an article, “How India and China sabotaged the UN Climate Summit.”
The summit revealed the humongous potential of India-China cooperation on international platforms. Given the size of either country's population and economy, India and China are intimidating enough individually. Together their might could be staggering. Not surprisingly, Copenhagen became a metaphor for forward movement at the 2010 India-China Beijing talks. Ms Patil and President Hu Jintao agreed that the Asian neighbours were now ready to move beyond bilateral engagement to consider cooperation at international groupings and venues, among them G-20, Doha and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China).
The enlarged scope of cooperation was brought up again on the last day of talks by Vice-President Xi Jinping, who made several significant points. First, he declared that India and China were ripe for a “new start.” Second, he reiterated the prospects for global cooperation between the Asian neighbours. Third, he pointed out that between them China and India boasted a combined population of 2.6 billion. The imagery would overawe anyone: Two fastest growing economies with close to 40 per cent of the global population acting in tandem. That Mr. Xi followed this up by attending the 60th anniversary celebrations of India-China relations held at a local hotel was not missed by the Indian side. Mr. Xi is not just any Vice-President. Though currently fifth in the Chinese leadership hierarchy, he is widely tipped to succeed Mr. Hu, which invests his words with weight and value. Mr. Xi's presence at the reception was noteworthy because the usual practice is to send Ministers to such functions.
Indian Foreign Ministry officials counted other factors which lent that special touch to the presidential visit. Ms Patil had an audience with each member of the leadership hierarchy — besides Mr. Hu and Mr. Xi, she met Chairman of the National People's Congress Wu Bangguo, Premier Wen Jiabao and Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Jia Qinglin. This is considered a rare honour for a visiting head of state.
Through the visit, the two sides seemed to have firmed up a formula, slowly evolving over meetings between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Chinese leadership, and now held up as the way forward: Manage the areas of conflict so that the relationship, rather than being held hostage to “one or two persisting issues,” could move forward to explore areas of global and bilateral cooperation.
Inevitably India's growing trade with China — China is India's largest trading partner with volumes targeted to reach $ 60 billion this year — figured prominently in the talks as did the fact that it was adversely balanced against India. President Patil missed no opportunity to speak for wider Indian access to Chinese markets. India's exports are currently restricted to primary and resource-based products such as iron ore and copper, with little opening available to core competence sectors like IT, pharma and engineering. In her speeches, Ms Patil stressed these as thrust areas for market development, and according to Indian officials, the Chinese team agreed that the trade imbalance was not sustainable. Said an Indian official: “The Chinese are minimal with their promises because they see them as commitment. The fact that at almost every forum they agreed to import more from us shows that they are very serious about trade.”
Yet with all the positives, the tour also showed how delicately poised the relationship is and how easily views can be shaped for or against China. So far, the Indian public opinion has alternated between exultation over Chindia and paranoia over imagined war threats. Chindia is an inappropriate coupling notwithstanding the growing prospects for India-China global joint action. China is far ahead of us on all indicators. On infrastructure and organising capacity, we must abandon all hopes of catching up — a truth that hit home when we saw the woefully inadequate Indian pavilion at the Shanghai expo.
As the presidential entourage flew into Beijing, the media mood was set by a report in the Guardian indicating huge Chinese diversion projects on the Brahmaputra. But thanks to excellent background briefing by the Indian side, which pointed to lack of evidence for the report, the accompanying media were prevented from blowing it up into “yet another Chinese threat.”
As against this, the media mood swing was overly positive on India's aspirations for a United Nations Security Council seat. Ms Patil did seek China's backing for it during her summit meeting with President Hu, and China did broadly indicate its support but the phraseology was far more nuanced than understood by the Indian media which drummed it up as “China backs India on UNSC seat.” Indeed, the omission of the “promised” UNSC seat from the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement issued the same day underscored the pitfalls of overinterpreting what Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao described as “a gradually developing relationship.” What official sources did convey later was that on the UNSC seat, “the Chinese were far more positive than they have been so far.”
Tibet provided some more media excitement on the last day of talks. Ms Rao and Ambassador S. Jaishankar were bombarded with questions: Did China raise Tibet? Just when we thought things were going fine, they brought up this irritant. Is this not unfair to us? MP Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, who was on the tour, added to the panic: “Heard they are singing the Tibet tune.” Tempers cooled down only after the Indian side explained that Tibet was on a checklist of queries China always raised in talks with India. The Indian side had a checklist too, and it was routine for both countries to go through the motions and allay each other's fears.
A top member of the Indian official delegation summed up India-China relations in terms of “pengyou” and “zhengyou.” “Pengyou” is a superficial friend. “Zhengyou” is a serious, real friend who will frankly admit to problems and work at overcoming them: “We have a zhengyou relationship with China.”