India and China are inching closer
Gulf News | April 5, 2005
By C. Raja Mohan
Among a series of top world leaders who are visiting New Delhi these days, there is no doubt about who is getting the top billing from the Indian political class. It is the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in New Delhi in the middle of March offering to help India become a world power.
The President of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf will arrive in New Delhi in a couple of weeks to witness a cricket match and push the Indo-Pak peace process forward.
At the end of April, the Prime Minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi, will be in India seeking to inject some political and economic content into a stagnant bilateral relationship.
All these developments are creating a rare moment of diplomatic opportunity for India.
But the Indian establishment has now focused like a laser beam on realising the extraordinary potential of Sino-Indian relations.
India's relations with China have always been special. But the complex history of their bilateral relations undermined past efforts by the two nations to construct a cooperative relationship.
Wen's sojourn in India that begins this weekend, however, promises to put Sino-Indian relations on a different track. It is not without reason that Wen had declared that his visit to India and his handshake with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be watched by the whole world.
Wen's visit offers radical change in Sino-Indian relations in three areas. The first is the strategic arena. The world today is debating the long-term political and economic consequences of the dramatic growth in China and India.
Will the rise of the two giants lead to war and instability or peace and prosperity in Asia?
Realists across the world are convinced that as rising powers, neighbours and two civilisational states with larger-than-life self-images, India and China are destined for rivalry and confrontation.
But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao are determined to prove the cynics wrong by demonstrating that expansive cooperation for mutual benefit is certainly a credible option before New Delhi and Beijing.
"I hope you can send my message back to the great Indian people, that we're not competitors, we are friends," Wen said in mid-March while India and China cannot convince sceptics by great sounding words on the relevance of Panchsheel, Asian solidarity and global multipolarity.
Rhetoric, in any case, is never in short supply when Indian and Chinese leaders meet.
In the past, lofty words have been used by New Delhi and Beijing to lull the domestic audiences into a mood of self-congratulation.
But the rest of the world scoffed at their attempt to paper over deep and abiding differences on bilateral issues and the absence of a normal, good neighbourly relationship.
However, from their own respective national interests India and China have now convinced themselves of the importance of establishing a political cooperation.
Whether India and China call their new relationship a "strategic partnership" is less important than the fact that both are approaching their ties from a "strategic perspective".
For China, the importance of improving relations with India comes amidst its growing tensions with Japan and increasing uncertainty in the ties with the United States. Beijing would certainly not want to leave political space for Washington to extend a potential containment of China to its south-western borders.
For India, on the other hand, a political partnership with China would fundamentally alter its security condition in the subcontinent and Asia. Rivalry with China in the past created enormous complexities for India's own relations with its other neighbours.
To lay the foundations for a long-term political partnership, India and China will have to dispel misperceptions about the nature of their future relations with such third parties as Pakistan and the United States.
To consolidate their political partnership, New Delhi and Beijing will have to move beyond the traditional rhetoric and demonstrate cooperation on regional and global issues such as energy security, the reform of the United Nations and strengthening Asean by supporting the participation of each other in a variety of regional institutions.
The prospect for greater political cooperation in the future has been facilitated by an unfolding transformation in a second arena the economic.
From virtually unnoticeable annual bilateral trade in the early 1990s, commerce between the two nations grew by 70 per cent last year to reach nearly $14billion (Dh51.52 billion) in 2004.
The current boom in Sino-Indian trade has defied all economic predictions and political scepticism. Even if the trade now grows only at a modest 30 per cent in the coming years, it is expected to touch $50 billion (Dh184 billion) in 2010.
That would make China the largest trade partner of India. To make it happen, India and China are working on a variety of proposals such as an agreement on comprehensive economic cooperation, expanded air links, revival of ancient trade routes and promotion of tourism.
In the past, India and China merely talked about building a relationship. For the first time in five decades, they in fact have a growing relationship, in its most visible form.
New Delhi and Beijing recognise that in order to provide the basis for an enduring political partnership, they will have to find ways to resolve their boundary dispute which has been the biggest single obstacle to the improvement of bilateral relations.
During Wen's visit, the two sides are likely to announce a set of guiding principles and political parameters for the resolution of the boundary dispute.
This agreement will provide the space for the politically empowered Special Representatives on both sides to finalise a framework for the much needed give and take on the boundary dispute.
The agreement on principles and a framework on mutual political concessions would help the two sides to put the boundary issue aside and move forward rapidly on political, economic and strategic cooperation across Asia and the world.
C. Raja Mohan is Professor of South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a columnist for the Indian Express.