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View: India, China need to talk boldly

April 05, 2010 12:27 IST

Billed as a visit aimed at consolidation of the much improved Sino-Indian ties after last year's spat on Arunachal Pradesh, Krishna will have a tough task in China. Srikanth Kondapalli takes stock at the progress and thorns that beset the bilateral ties.

During his visit to China beginning Monday, External Affairs Minister SM Krishna is expected to raise a number of issues with his counterpart Yang Jiechi and other top leaders.

The tour assumes significance because this is the first high-level visit between the two countries after a series of spats in the media accusing each other.

Krishna had met his Chinese counterpart at several international venues before, but this visit promises to be of a more structured interaction, if not a conclusive engagement, between the two large beleaguered Asian neighbours.

Though the main aim of the visit is to inaugurate Indian cultural shows in China, as both countries celebrate the 60th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic ties, it is natural to take stock of the progress and problems that beset bilateral relations.

In the last couple of years, China opened a number of fronts against India, viz, intransigence to resolve the border dispute, military build-up, diplomatic resistance (as on the civilian nuclear issue and Asian Development Bank loans to Arunachal Pradesh), officially approved media war on India and reopening new problems in the bilateral relations (such as issuing stapled visas to Kashmir students).

Unlike in the 1950s when the bonhomie quickly dissipated into open skirmishes on the border, current relations are characterised by a relative parity between the two in their respective rise in the international power system. Both are nuclear weapon states and actively engage a number of countries in different fields.

The leaderships in both these countries are rational actors in the sense that the costs and benefits of their respective actions are well known. Yet, the bilateral relations in the recent past had exhibited turbulence. On all core bilateral aspects, the relations are still fragile, with hardly any progress achieved on these issues.

The unresolved territorial dispute threatens to derail bilateral relations now and then despite a 1993 peace and tranquility agreement. Periodic transgressions on the Line of Actual Control have threatened to puncture peace in the Himalayas.

Three decades of discussions between the officials of these countries hardly yielded any amicable solution to the border dispute. With nationalistic rhetoric against India reaching high decibels in China currently, it is a foregone conclusion that the border issue cannot be resolved in the near future.

Secondly, China's military modernisation efforts in Tibet and other areas are also triggering alarm bells in New Delhi. After the Chinese military's march into Tibet in the 1950s, an alarmed Nehru initiated "forward policy" resulting in the 1962 clashes.

China's construction of a railway line in Tibet and its infrastructure projects in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir currently raise concerns in New Delhi.

Former Army Chief Gen Deepak Kapoor suggested last October that the forces are preparing for two theatre war (against Pakistan and China) under nuclear conditions. Last November, Defence Minister AK Antony suggested the consultative committee of the Parliament on defence that India would strengthen the strategic assets in North East. China's conduct of a ballistic missile test successfully in January this year is expected to trigger further Indian programmes in the field.

Thirdly, despite making a tie-up with the United States from the 1972 Nixon visit, Beijing is wary of the emerging cooperation between Washington and New Delhi. China had signed a 123 agreement with the US for civilian nuclear technology. Yet, in the words of former national security advisor MK Narayanan, China had "disappointed" India on this issue by its role in the meetings of International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Suppliers Group.

China's insistence on observing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1172 on "cap, roll-back and eliminate" the nuclear programme in South Asia appears to be another sticking point between India and China for some more years to come.

Fourthly, an issue that could affect public perceptions and policy, the media war appears to be unabated between India and China.
Controlled by the State through propaganda departments, the Chinese media plays a "mouthpiece" role. Significantly, the widespread coverage against India in the Chinese media indicates the official consent, if not patronage.

Coupled with the rising nationalism in China, the press coverage in the official media organs has highlighted the vulnerabilities in the fragile relations between India and China. Previously, with such widespread coverage dovetailing into street protests in China, relations between China and the United States, France and Japan have nosedived. Indian media's "watchdog" performance and its critique of China in the recent period had also resulted in a stalemate.

There are then lessons to be learnt to avoid further deterioration in relations between India and China.

For, both India and China have several commonalities, viz., national strategy focus on economic development, counter-terrorism, independent foreign policy, support to United Nations Charter, multipolarity, coordination on environmental and energy security issues, etc.

Yet, while both countries have initiated a modicum of coordination, severe differences persist on all these issues -- despite graduating to "strategic partnership and cooperation" in April 2005.

Being large countries, both realise they need a long-term environment of peace and stability in the neighbourhood for them to grow. For this to happen, both New Delhi and Beijing need to talk big ideas boldly during this visit.

Srikanth Kondapalli is the author of several books and monographs on China including China's Military: The PLA in Transition (1999), China's Naval Power  (2001), A Great Leap Forward Modernization

Srikanth Kondapalli