Wen a neighbour comes calling…

(This article, a curtain-raiser to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s upcoming visit to India, was published in DNA edition dated December 12, 2010.)

Venky Vembu

A chill wind is blowing across Beijing, but it isn’t just a momentary meteorological effect that drives down night-time temperatures well below zero. The frostiness in the air in recent times has cast a cold, clammy influence farther afield – on China’s relations with practically all its neighbours. It is reflected in the icy edge to the tone in which Chinese leaders have been hectoring leaders far and near, and in the blustery headlines in the official Chinese media.

On Friday, however, the weather changed momentarily on at least one unlikely front: the official English-language China Daily sought to dispel some of the winter chill with an all-too-rare sunny account of Sino-Indian relations, barely days ahead of Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India. A new supplement, ‘Asia Weekly’, bearing a splashy photograph of Wen and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, framed Sino-Indian relations in the context of the rise of the “two Asian Titans” as growth engines of the global economy at a time when much of the developed economies are down and out.

The upbeat media build-up to Wen’s upcoming visit from Wednesday – on which he will be accompanied by the largest ever Chinese trade delegation to India – reflects a manifest effort to use surging bilateral trade to grease the tracks of the overall relationship, which has been strained for a number of reasons.

Two-way trade is expected to rise to $60 billion this year; about 10-15 trade agreements are expected to be signed during Wen’s visit, during which efforts will also be made to set a $100 billion target for  bilateral trade by 2015. “Trade agreements in the areas of solar power, thermal power, steel, engineering and telecom equipment manufacturing are expected to be signed,” says M. Arunachalam, former president of the Asia Pacific Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, who has played a catalytic role in promoting trade and investment between India and China. In addition, the visitors will showcase a demonstration of China’s famed high-speed rail technology, which – if embraced by India – can reduce Mumbai-Delhi commute time to three hours!

“India is a growing market for Chinese goods and for Chinese enterprises in the area of infrastructure,” notes Prof Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. The Chinese focus on trade, he adds, makes sense “because they believe it can have a positive fallout on the overall relationship.” In particular, the effort during Wen’s visit, he reasons, will be to target the Indian business community – which has a vested interest in developing deeper relations with China – and the media elite. “The Chinese side will want to emphasise the message that it is good for India to deal more with China.”

In fact, informed sources told DNA that on the first day of his visit, on December 15, Wen will give away awards to 10-12 Indians from various streams – including businessmen – who have contributed to improved Sino-Indian relations.

However, sceptical analysts argue that the buy-buy bonhomie engendered by improved Sino-Indian trade won’t be enough to revive the bhai-bhai spirit of old. A long-standing border dispute remains no closer to resolution despite 14 rounds of talks at the special representative level. And China’s issuance of stapled visas to Kashmir residents in recent months (which signals its unwillingness to acknowledge Indian sovereignty over the State), its coddling of Pakistan, and its outreach into India’s zone of influence in the Indian Ocean have vitiated the atmosphere further.

On its part, notes Cabestan, China remains intensely wary of India’s emerging strategic relationship with the US, and feels “encircled” by the US and its friends and allies.

That element of mutual distrust has been accentuated by some embarrassing revelations from a few WikiLeaks cables that relate to Sino-Indian relations. For instance, one of the cables from the US ambassador in Beijing notes that the Indian ambassador to China requested closer co-operation with the US because of “China’s more aggressive approach”. Just as embarrassing from a Chinese perspective is a cable that recalls Chinese vice foreign minister He Yafei telling a US embassy official in Beijing that the US should not be “proactive” in reforming the UN Security Council and not dilute the “club” of permanent members – to which India seeks admittance.

In that context, Jagannath Prasad Panda, research fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, cautions against expecting any dramatic improvement in the overall political relationship from Wen’s visit. For instance, he recalls, during Wen’s previous visit in 2005, India and China discussed the elements of strategic engagement and cooperation, and pledged to maintain status quo on the border, without provocations. “But if you look at the record of the past few years, with repeated incursions by the Chinese army and the ramping up of infrastructure on the Chinese side of the border, it appears that the 2005 principles don’t have any value,” he adds.

Is it inconceivable that Wen and Singh, who are both at the end of their political careers, might pull off a détente denouement with an eye on their historical legacy? Dr Srikanth Kondapalli, professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is intensely sceptical. “The personality factor doesn’t count for much in India-China relations,” he notes. And, in fact, Wen’s ‘legacy’ – such as it is – on India is “quite problematic: despite the 2005 agreement on partnership and cooperation, during Wen’s visit, nothing substantial resulted; what we have is a stalemate in bilateral relations despite a modicum of normalisation.”

In fact, even the much-hyped trade relationship is fraught with problems, adds Kondapalli. It’s not just about the trade balance, which is heavily weighted in China’s favour. Chinese investments in India are “miniscule” – only an estimated $1.2 billion. And it’s not because – as the Chinese claim that there are restrictions on Chinese investments on security grounds. “There are many areas they can invest in that have no security implications, but they don’t, although they have the expertise.”

So, what might, from an Indian perspective, mark Wen Jiabao’s visit as a success? Panda lists three things: an allusion by Wen to India’s place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council – although he expects it to be tangential at best; a forthright clarification of China’s stand acknowledging Indian sovereignty over Kashmir, which would signal an end to the ‘stapled visa’ provocation; and an articulation of an alliance among India and China as leaders of developing economies to tackle western dominance of the international monetary system.

Kondapalli too would like to hear Wen make a forthright statement supporting without preconditions India’s candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. “That is one of the things that could appeal to the Indian elite,” he says. But at a more practical level, he would like the Chinese leader to announce investments in civilian projects – infrastructure building, transport, roads, railways, airports. “That,” he says, “would generate some goodwill.” As for the ‘stapled visa’ issue, he already sees signs that the Chinese are rolling it back – and expects them to offer a satisfactory clarification in private discussions with Indian leaders.


Hindi-Chini buy-buy
What’s on the cards?

  • Focus of Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit will be on trade and economic ties
  • 10-15 trade agreements likely to be signed for solar power, thermal power, steel, engineering and telecom equipment manufacturing projects
  • Premier Wen is likely to give away awards to 10-12 Indians from various streams – including businessmen – who have contributed to Sino-Indian relations.
  • As for the promise of support for India’s candidacy for UN Security Council permanent membership… don’t hold your breath.

Related reading
China and India can’t grow without conflict
Interview with Jonathan Holslag
Are war-mongers narrating the China-India story?
What the GDP hype about India and China hides
Will China spike India’s chances of a seat at the high table?
China is edgy about India’s rise as an East Asian power


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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