Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing: Incremental and Institutional Progress

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????srikanthIndia’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested that he was satisfied with his just-concluded visit to Beijing. This was his second bilateral visit to China since January 2008 and symbolically represents the second time when the leaders of India and China visited each other’s capitals since 1954. Indeed, with the nine agreements signed between the two Asian countries on October 23, and a spate of visits from either side this year, the Indian prime minister’s visit to Beijing marked an important step in the process of incremental and institutional progress in bilateral ties.

2013: Year of Intense Engagement

Firstly, 2013 had been an eventful year in the India-China relations – indeed unprecedented in terms of the sheer number of visits between officials of the two countries.  As the Indian political scene transforms into the nation-wide electoral battlefield in 2014, when restrictions will be imposed by the Election Commission on any major political announcements, the significance of the 2013 visits become all the more evident. Late last year, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon visited Beijing to fathom the views of the newly-elected Chinese leadership at the 18th Communist Party Congress. Mr Menon visited Beijing again in June this year for the 16th Special Representatives’ meeting on the boundary dispute. In January, the two sides held the second Strategic Economic Dialogue in which the Chinese side announced $5.2billion in investments in India even as bilateral trade touched $66 billion (a reduction from $74 billion in 2012 owing to the global financial crises). Of course, the $23 billion trade deficit in favour of China had been raised by the Indian side many a time. China’s then state councilor Dai Bingguo visited India mainly to prepare for the BRICS meeting at Durban. January also witnessed the fifth annual defence dialogue in Beijing between the two defence establishments, who came up with the idea of further joint operations between the two armies (after the “hand-in-hand” operations were held in 2007 and 2008).

India’s Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid visited Beijing in May after the Depsang Plains incident fizzled out. Later, Li Keqiang visited India in May as part of his first maiden visit abroad after becoming the premier. Dr Manmohan Singh met China’s President Xi Jinping at BRICS meeting in March in South Africa. In August, the 5th strategic dialogue was held in New Delhi. Just before the Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing, the 4th meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on China-India Border Affairs met at Beijing in late September 2013. Both sides have expanded the institutional dialogue process as reflected in the discussions related to West, Central and Southeast Asian regions as well as the six rounds of talks on counter-terrorism. While not all issues have been resolved between these two countries, these meetings provided for an opportunity to know the other side as well as provide for an incremental progress in the bilateral relations.

Joining hands in global arena

Secondly, leaders of both countries appeared to have arrived at a broader consensus on multilateral initiatives that were being carried out in the past few years. Coordination over international climate change negotiations and the Doha Rounds, opposition to trade protectionism, similar perspectives on events in Syria, Libya, Iran and the like has provided a level of comfort between the two leaderships.

Xi Jinping’s 5-point plan

china-indiaWhile Dr Manmohan Singh’s comments since 2009 on China’s assertiveness were made in the backdrop of the stapled visa issue for Kashmir residents, these appeared to have given way to the idea that bilateral economic interactions should be expanded. The comments of the new leadership in China are also in the similar direction. Xi Jinping, before embarking on his first overseas visit after becoming President of China enunciated the five points on March 19, 2013: “First, we should maintain strategic communication and keep our bilateral relations on the right track. Second, we should harness each other’s comparative strengths and expand win-win cooperation in infrastructure, mutual investment and other areas. Third, we should strengthen cultural ties and increase the mutual understanding and friendship between our peoples. Fourth, we should expand coordination and collaboration in multilateral affairs to jointly safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries and tackle global challenges. Fifth, we should accommodate each other’s core concerns and properly handle problems and differences existing between the two countries.” [emphasis added]. Further, he stated that “The border question is a complex issue left from history and solving the issue won’t be easy. However, as long as we keep up friendly consultations, we can eventually arrive at a fair reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement. Pending the final settlement of the boundary question the two sides should work together and maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas and prevent the border question from affecting the overall development of bilateral relations.” [emphasis added]. These pronouncements indicated that perceptions are changing towards tackling bilateral issues through more intensified institutional arrangements between the two sides.

Thirdly, even though some think that the unresolved territorial dispute, Tibet and the Indian Ocean could be possible conflict scenarios, some Chinese analysts think that both China and India are rising simultaneously and that despite the current downturn in the economic growth, India has its own niche areas – such as in IT, BPO/KPO, services sector, burgeoning middle class, mature stock-exchanges, English speaking population, domestic consumption etc. These could provide economic opportunities for China in the medium to long term. However, Chinese analysts also underline that India’s hard power is also rising: its conventional and nuclear deterrence capabilities are increasing; it has become one of the largest importers of weapons (specifically from the US).

Nevertheless, China values relations with India in the following respects. Given the fact that India is one of the largest neighbours with over 4,000 km of borders, some Chinese think that there is a need for Panch Sheel 2.0! As a regional power, China needs to make arrangements for regional security, either balancing India through Pakistan or other South Asian states or in a beneficial relationship given the extent of domestic market demand in India. India could be a partner in global developments for China at regional levels by working together in multilateral mechanisms (UN, SCO, EAS, SAARC, BRICS, IORARC, etc); as a development partner in the restructuring of the IMF and other financial institutions; close cooperation at global levels on issues of “non-interference”; in field cooperation on issues of energy, environment, and other non-traditional security issues; coordination in the post-ISAF withdrawal situation from Afghanistan. Some also suggest that India could be useful in working together on an understanding about the European Union’s free trade proposals or the US Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPIFA initiatives. In other words, in the global transition period, coordination with India and other countries could be beneficial to China. These suggest that pragmatic steps will be made to evolve coordination by the two leaderships in future.

Festering Issues

china-talksFourthly, while bilateral issues have not been yet settled between the two countries, they need to be raised at the highest levels and clarifications sought, and if possible resolved. Indeed, in the recent period such concerns in both New Delhi and Beijing have substantially increased. Since late 2000s, China’s “stapled” visa issue had been stoutly opposed by New Delhi. Also, the presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir has been raised by New Delhi. According to Senge Sering, China is currently occupying 20,000 sq.km of territory of Gilgit and Baltistan. Two Indian archers from Arunachal Pradesh got stapled visas to attend the sports event at Wuxi in October 2013. Indeed, such issues spilled over into the “core” bilateral issues which led New Delhi to avoid endorsing “one China” re-iterations in December 2010, May 2013 and October 2013 joint statements between the two premiers. Some Chinese have also expressed concerns on the Indian decision to go ahead with a Strike Corps (with three divisions) in the trans-Himalayan region. In August 2013, India also activated the INS Arihant’s nuclear reactor and began development of INS Vikrant aircraft carrier. This indicates that both sides have been making preparations for capacity build-up.

Beijing Visit: An Appraisal

Eventually, during the recent visit of Dr Manmohan Singh to Beijing, of the nine pacts, the border defence cooperation, trans-boundary rivers, infrastructure investment agreements are the most significant. Indeed, in one of the shortest of the joint statements between the two premiers, economic issues were highlighted in the order of issues discussed. Road construction and service centers for power equipment have been highlighted, although trade deficit is mounting between the two sides from an estimated $23 billion in 2012 to an estimated $30 billion so far this year and such measures as above, in addition to the proposed “industrial parks,” could hardly bridge this colossal deficit in the short-to-medium term. This indicates that the implementation of the stated projects and their progress needs to be watched for their impact on the bilateral relations.

(Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also an Honorary Fellow at Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi and Research Associate at Centre for Chinese Studies, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. He received the K. Subrahmanyam Award in 2010 for Excellence in Research in Strategic and Security Studies).