Pallavi Aiyar

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coming visit to Beijing can be seen as one more step in the long road towards strengthening bilateral ties.

The geopolitical spotlight at the start of the New Year is firmly trained on Chindia, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gearing up for his much anticipated visit to the Chinese capital. In the 21st century, India and China have emerged as two of the world’s fastest growing economies. With a combined population equal to a third of the world’s total, the appetites and interests of the two countries are of increasing influence in shaping the new and as yet unsettled, post-Cold War order.

It is in this context that the significance of their evolving bilateral ties must be analysed. Formidable as both potential collaborators and equally fearsome as competitors, the two neighbours find themselves facing similar challenges and opportunities. Scouring the world for the oil and other natural resources needed to feed their burgeoning economies, both countries are concerned with developing new foreign policies that match their changing aspirations and status. To this end, they are seeking to modernise their militaries, increase their regional influence by integrating areas on their periphery, and develop their soft power.

The relationship between two nations on the rise is never a simple one, but Sino-Indian ties are subject to added layers of complexity. India and China not only share a disputed border that is thousands of kilometres long but are also attempting to spread their wings in essentially overlapping areas of influence.

Dr. Singh’s visit to China will be the first by an Indian Prime Minister in almost five years. Given the significance of the bilateral engagement this might seem like a long gap, but it is nonetheless an improvement over previous occasions. The last Indian Prime Minister to travel to Beijing, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in June 2003, made the trip after a space of 10 years. At the time, cross-Himalayan relations were notable mainly for their prickliness, with the single issue of the boundary predominating. When India tested a nuclear device in 1998, it pointed to the ostensible strategic threat posed by China, as justification. Until March 2002, the two countries lacked a direct flight connection. Bilateral trade that same year stood at a paltry $5 billion.

Since then, however, ties have substantially improved. Trade has been galloping forward, investments are on the up, and steps towards cooperation on a broad spectrum from energy to the military have been undertaken. During Mr. Vajpayee’s 2003 China trip, special representatives from both sides were appointed to seek a political solution to the border dispute. Two years later, in 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao visited New Delhi and a series of political parameters and guiding principles for the devising of a framework to settle the dispute were announced. Simultaneously, the decision to upgrade ties to a strategic and cooperative partnership was also taken.

In the last year itself several milestones in bilateral relations were reached. From January to November, bilateral trade rocketed to $34.2 billion.

In December, the armies of the two countries conducted their first-ever series of joint exercises, taking a long stride away from the bitterness and suspicion that followed in the wake of the 1962 war.

Earlier in the last year, a special hotline between the two Foreign Ministries was set up even as new consulates opened up in Guangzhou and Kolkata. Fresh flight routes were added connecting eastern India with southern China, taking the total number of weekly direct flights between the countries to 22.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi made a high profile visit to Beijing in October 2007. Two months later, the third India-China strategic dialogue was held in the Chinese capital. Moreover, the two countries found several opportunities to make common cause on a variety of global issues including climate change and the World Trade Organisation negotiations.

However, despite the visible upswing in bilateral ties, unresolved tensions continue to simmer under the surface, even as new areas of potential contention have emerged.

Widening trade deficit

On the economic front, a widening trade deficit for India is threatening to mar the positive of the business engagement. In the January-November period for 2007, the Indian trade deficit with China widened to $9.02 billion, compared to the $843 million trade surplus New Delhi enjoyed as recently as 2005. India is also yet to grant China market economy status and is reluctant to enter into the Free Trade Agreement that Beijing is pushing for.

Developments of a geo-strategic nature have also caused discomfiture on both sides of the border. For example, Beijing’s official reaction to the Indo-U.S. deal on civilian nuclear energy cooperation has been lukewarm, with the Chinese media accusing the accord of hurting the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

In the meantime, China has continued to extend military and nuclear cooperation, including major arms sales and energy assistance to Pakistan, its “all weather” ally. Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy involving the building of naval bases all along the Indian Ocean has the Indian military establishment nervous, as does the country’s new push towards developing high quality infrastructure along the southern border of Tibet.

Suspicions have in turn been aroused in China by India’s growing closeness to the United States and Japan. The quadrilateral initiative involving India, Japan, the U.S., and Australia, has raised the spectre in Beijing of an attempt to squeeze and isolate China within an “arc of democracy.”

Moreover, rather than any positive breakthroughs in the border dispute, the boundary in recent months has emerged as the centre of considerable controversy, with the Chinese Ambassador making a public statement reasserting China’s claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh only days before President Hu Jintao’s India visit in November 2006. Although this was in fact a reiteration of China’s traditional claim to the State, government officials have refrained from restating historical positions in recent years, referring instead to the need to make “mutually acceptable adjustments.”

While the Chinese government sought to play down the significance of the ambassador’s comment, the matter was back in the limelight a few months ago when Beijing refused a visa to an IAS officer from Arunachal Pradesh. Reports of incursions across the Line of Control have also made regular appearances, demonstrating how far the neighbours in fact are from the strategic and cooperative partnership that is their stated goal.

The reality of Sino-Indian relations thus remains complex; a complexity that will be unaltered by Dr. Singh’s brief visit to Beijing later in the month. In addition to meeting with China’s top leadership, Dr. Singh will address scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and attend a meeting of business leaders. He will also join Premier Wen Jiabao for a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People to commemorate the work of Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis, a member of an Indian medical mission sent to China in 1938 to provide assistance in the face of the Japanese invasion.

In sum, the visit is likely to be high on symbolism but low on substance, a condition that has characterised most recent developments in bilateral ties.

For example, while the recently concluded joint army exercises were in many ways a public relations coup, military analysts say little information of actual defence value was exchanged. The focus of the exercises was on counter terrorist operations, but the cold fact remains that India’s major terrorist threat emerges from China’s old ally, Pakistan.

Again, while 2007 was celebrated by both sides as the Year of Friendship through Tourism, India was only able to attract some 67,600 visitors from China in the year, out of a total of over 35 million outbound Chinese travellers.

Experts in China say the thrust of the joint communiqué signed during Dr. Singh’s visit is likely to be on common stances on global issues pertaining to the environment and international trade negotiations. The reason they say is that bilateral issues like the border have entered a substantive phase and there is thus less scope for dramatic declarations there.

The next stage of Sino-Indian relations will in many ways be the most crucial. While ties have undoubtedly improved since the start of the new century, they have since hit a plateau. Deft diplomacy, patience and skill will be required to transition from the current emphasis on “managing” bilateral ties, to substantially strengthening the relationship. This will entail not only the balancing of competing interests but also the changing of ossified mindsets. Dr. Singh’s visit is thus best seen as one more step forward on this long and twisting road.