Top priority for engagement with China

NEW DELHI, NOV. 15. After engaging with the United States for about a year, India is getting ready for a diplomatic pas de deux with China. Highly-placed sources in the Government say that a new engagement with China is now at the top of India's foreign policy priorities.

India and China are both beginning to deal with each other, if only warily. Given the burdensome history of the relationship, it will be a while before the two Asian giants are locked in an embrace. But the indications are that India and China have begun to cautiously court each other.

The Government is carefully assessing political signals emanating out of China that Beijing may be in the middle of a serious review of its recent approach towards India.

Pointing to the ``noticeable difference'' in the tone and tenor of recent Chinese pronouncements, a senior Government official said, ``it is almost as if they are taking a new look at India''.

Recent statements from senior Chinese interlocutors and the commentary in official media suggest that the expanding Indian relationship with the U.S. and its allies as well as the renewal of the old ties with Russia may have made an impression on Beijing.

The Chinese leaders may no longer be able to avoid the conclusion that India has successfully wriggled out of the international isolation which it faced after the nuclear tests in May 1998. There are hints from China that it may be ready to acknowledge the reality that India is now a nuclear weapon power.

The slow but steady expansion of the Indian economic potential, and the advances in the field of information technology may also have helped re-shape Chinese perceptions of India.

New Delhi's ``big power diplomacy'' - as some in China are calling the recent Indian initiatives with the U.S., Europe, Japan and Russia - is being seen in Beijing as having the potential to alter the geopolitics of Asia.

The signals from India are that it is has no desire to replay the Cold War games in Asia and is ready for a productive engagement with China. Senior officials here insist India ``will not follow anybody else's agenda on China'' and hopes to develop Sino-Indian relations on their own merit.

Conscious of the new signals from China, India would like to see the Chinese leadership arrive at a definitive assessment of India and is ready to move forward without ``losing sight'' of India's long-standing concerns in its relations with China.

These relate to the long-standing boundary dispute, the continuing reluctance in China to acknowledge the accession of Sikkim to India, and the enduring strategic cooperation with China. On the border issue, India and China have agreed to expedite the clarification of the Line of Actual Control that separates the two nations on their disputed border. At a meeting of a bilateral Expert Group in this week, it has been reported that the two sides have exchanged maps on the border for the first time.

Indian officials are still evaluating the results from these meeting. If the assessment is positive, it can be hoped that the experts will meet more frequently and negotiate with greater purposefulness.

India's concerns on Sino-Pak. nuclear and missile cooperation are being discussed in a structured security dialogue between the two nations. The second round of the security dialogue is expected to take place in the coming weeks in Beijing.

Meanwhile, with China's likely entry into the World Trade Organisation and the new liberalised rules taking effect from next April will significantly increase Chinese economic presence in India. Indian manufacturing industry is anxious about competition from its Chinese counterpart, and the Government is under some compulsion for the first time to come to terms with a whole new economic dimension to Sino-Indian relations.