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By any calculations, 2013 would be an unusual year in India-China relations in recent times. In early March, the new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had requested an unscheduled visit – he wanted India to be the destination of his first foreign visit in May. While the request had been accepted, yet another episode of the infamous ‘boundary incursions’ reportedly took place in April-May 2013 at the Daulet Beg Oldi in the Ladakh region in the western sector – which went far beyond the usual transgression and withdrawal. Reports suggested the Chinese troops set up tents and camped in Indian territory for nearly a fortnight before the matter was resolved.The episode did take the shine off somewhat from Premier Li’s visit but the attempts to underscore the significance of this relationship were fairly successful. The year ended with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making his scheduled visit to China (following his visits to the US and Russia) from October 22-24 2013. That chalked up two India-China prime ministerial visits in a single year. But while a new generation of Chinese leaders was attempting to lay the groundwork for the future direction of the India-China ties, the outgoing leadership in India was attempting to place its own stamp on achievements of the past decade.
Given the preceding clamour and commotion over the emotional outbursts and angry attacks on the Chinese ‘perfidy’ in the summer of 2013, the focus of the media and strategic analysts, (both in India and abroad) during this visit by Singh, came to rest almost entirely on the proposed Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), which had been under discussion between the two sides for nearly a year.
The larger structure of the relationship, which has a substantial economic core, increasing movements of peoples to and from either side, a regional agenda in Asia Pacific (which is rapidly expanding as India shows greater receptivity to the possibilities of cooperation with the Chinese, particularly in areas of connectivity) and a global partnership underpinned by strong multilateral engagements, seems to be almost entirely discounted. The BDCA, despite its valiant objectives of halting the recidivism by plugging the loopholes in the existing mechanisms with some additional – and creative – prophylactics, has been either dismissed as caving in to Chinese pressures or unlikely to achieve the desired objectives as there still remains suspicions about Chinese intentions.
However, the positive significance of a stable and cooperative India-China relationship for both countries, the region and indeed the world, has now been indisputably established.
It is possible to argue that had Daulat Beg Oldi not taken place, and had the matter of the stapled visas on the passports of the two sportspersons from Arunachal not transpired on the eve of his departure, the outcome of the Prime Minister’s visit may have been given its due. We have been arguing for some time now that it is imperative to impart substance to the Strategic Partnership that was signed in 2006 and to take the understanding that was so evident in the Singh-Wen interactions, in more concrete directions. The Joint Statement signed during this visit, seems to address this aspect. Three agreements establishing ‘sister city’ relations between Delhi and Beijing, Kunming and Kolkata and Bengaluru and Chengdu have been signed. Three agreements – one elaborating on the establishment of the Nalanda University in India, one on cooperation between the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways of the two countries and one between the Indian Ministry of Power and the Chinese National Energy Administration on setting up Power Equipment Service centres in India have also been inked.
More crucially, a very important agreement on strengthening cooperation on trans-border rivers has now been signed, which takes the earlier arrangement a few steps further by making it incumbent on the Chinese to acknowledge India’s lower riparian status by bringing on board “issues of mutual interest” – which would both include the dams being built on either side and providing vital hydrological data earlier than is the case at present. But the Achilles heel – which still begs the question – is whether these additions to the already existing aspirations and some extremely desirable objectives, would be implemented in a focused and systematic manner.
The visit was not without its symbolism either – something that has become a vital ingredient in the atmospherics of the India-China summit meetings. For a variety of reasons, this symbolism seems to evoke only cynicism within India – but an invitation to Manmohan Singh to address the Central Party School in Beijing, a dinner with President Xi Jinping and a tour of the Forbidden City escorted by Premier Li Keqiang, would convey a vital signal to the Chinese people about the significance of India for the new Chinese leadership. India will be dealing with a highly confident leadership in the Xi-Li team and it is important that a good basis is set for the forseeable period. This – and it must be underscored – does not amount to pusillanimity.One must appreciate the incremental – but firm – progress in a relationship bedevilled by mistrust and poor understanding on either side. The complexities inherent in the boundary dispute and the suspicions about the Chinese do cast a blight on this progress. The casualty is invariably a sense of objectivity about the nature of the problems and their tangled history.
Equally, while it is important to stand firm about one’s interests, one must not forgo the opportunities. It is also crucial that we bear in mind that this is a relationship between two fast rising powers – though one is clearly far ahead, giving a highly asymmetrical character to the relationship – and both are following their respective paths to wealth and power. This is not a process that will be without its share of friction and even some stiff competition and probably more. But it is not an unresolvable contradiction, as this visit has shown.