The Chinese premier’s visit will boost bilateral trade, the bedrock of Sino-Indian relations

To the millions of Chinese children, Premier Wen Jiabao is affectionately known as grandfather Wen, conveying the tremendous success he has achieved in cultivating the image of ‘people’s man’ or the ‘humane face’ of the Chinese government. This sentiment was transmitted to Delhi’s Tagore International School, which was Wen’s stop on the first day of his recent trip to India. A child asked him, “Could I call you Grandfather Wen?” Pat came his reply, “I love to be called that, especially by children.” Perhaps this exchange was scripted, but one indisputable feature of how he came across—whether meeting schoolchildren or addressing business leaders or talking to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—was his winsome demeanour. Through it, he conveyed the message that he’s a reasonable man, arguably India’s best bet to improve its relations with China.

Wen’s arrival in Delhi on December 15 makes him the first Chinese premier to visit India twice since 1976, the year full diplomatic ties between the two countries were restored. (He had visited earlier in 2005.) Wen needs to make yet another trip here to surpass Zhou Enlai’s record of three visits, all made during the much-celebrated, Hindi-Chini-bhai-bhai days of the 1950s. These details, trivial though they may seem, prompts Chen Jian of Cornell University to tell Outlook, “This should be regarded as an effort on Beijing’s part to link China-India relations today to the 1950s, which were then characterised by friendship, solidarity and comprehensive cooperation.”

Chen’s description of the ’50s as the heyday of Sino-India relations could give the jitters to many, for the bonhomie then evaporated in the heat of the 1962 Sino-India conflict, sparked off over the contentious border issue which continues to linger even today. But 2010 isn’t 1962; neither are the two countries fledgling nation-states as they were then. Perhaps there’s just too much at stake to risk a war. As foreign secretary Nirupama Rao told Outlook, “The leadership of both India and China recognise the relationship to be too vital to allow it to deteriorate. It needs constant political interaction at the highest level for creating a stable and well-functioning relationship.”

Manmohan and Wen have interacted several times, mainly on the sidelines of multilateral summits amidst strains creeping into Indo-China relations. But the two leaders share a chemistry, a fact underlined by Manmohan hosting Wen at a private dinner on December 15 at his residence, a privilege reserved for close friends from abroad. The dinner enabled them to discuss informally thorny issues the delegation-level talks wrestled with the following day—from China’s decision to issue stapled visas to Kashmiris to its activities in PoK to the selling of two more nuclear reactors to Pakistan to the impact the Chinese dam on their side of the Brahmaputra is likely to have on the river. Taken up also was the trade imbalance between the two countries, which together boast a business worth $60 billion. China’s sensitivity to India’s concern on this issue saw the two signing nearly 50 MoUs.

This heap of MoUs, as also Wen’s public pronouncements, upheld Manmohan’s stance of there being enough space for the two countries to cooperate rather than compete. An accommodative China is in sharp contrast to the public image most Indians harbour. This is particularly surprising as Wen visited India at the time New Delhi ignored Beijing’s request to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony where Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao was given the award, and has been candid about playing a bigger role in East Asia, which Beijing considers its backyard. Is this a case of belated realisation on Beijing’s part? Sceptics say Wen’s visit was part of a public relations exercise to refurbish China’s image after recent months of ‘terrible diplomacy’ that has raised the hackles of the US and many in East and South Asia. Their outrage prompted China to take compensatory measures to ensure that its neighbourhood remain stable enough for it to pursue its economic growth.

Says Robert Ross of the Boston College, “Wen’s visit was to assure the Indian leadership that its enhanced military activities along the borders were not aimed at India but to stabilise the troubled regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.” Ross hints that China’s conciliatory, reasonable tone towards India need not be permanent, for the relationship between the two countries is fundamentally competitive in nature. He adds, “The challenge before the two countries, therefore, will be to maintain their engagement even as they continue to be competitors.”

Agrees Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, “The danger is that the Sino-Indo relationship will turn into growing rivalry full of tension.” He cites reasons why the relationship will snowball into competition: “The two countries are profoundly different and there is, alas, little empathy between them, the continuing legacy of the border war, their thinly concealed rivalry in the Indian Ocean and South Asia etc.” These factors, he insists, will overshadow the spirit of collaboration evinced in areas like the wto negotiations and climate change.

Others, though, feel Wen’s velvet approach reflects the growing maturity of the relationship. It all started in 1988, says Alka Acharya of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for East Asian Studies, when then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi made his famous trip to China and the two sides agreed to concentrate on areas of cooperation by keeping aside the contentious boundary dispute. “It’s now more to do with nuancing the policies to deal with each other.” say Acharya.

This nuancing of policies include trade and economic cooperation which South Block mandarins now describe as the ‘bedrock’ of Sino-Indian ties, serving as it does the interests of both. India wants to enhance its trade and attract foreign investment worth $1 trillion within the current five-year plan period; cash-rich China is looking to park its surplus and explore new markets. India’s emerging market is the obvious choice. This economic interdependence is also the best bet to ensure that differences between the two sides do not degenerate into an armed conflict.

The high stakes inherent in the relationship now was perhaps the reason, Indian officials say, the two sides managed to discuss the contentious issues in a “free and frank” manner, and identified areas where cooperation will be mutually beneficial. But you can’t rejoice over a pudding that has only been promised. “The trade cooperation between the two sides has been the success story. Therefore, China has to take urgent steps to ensure that the Indians remain interested in its growth,” says Acharya. An India disinterested in China’s growth could undermine the bedrock of the relationship.

Pakistan is the jarring pattern on the Sino-India tapestry. India worries over China’s assistance to enhance Pakistan’s heft. This isn’t limited to developing infrastructure, but envelops the defence and nuclear sectors, which imperil India’s security. But India will have to adjust to the reality of “an all-weather friendship” that China and Pakistan say they share. Lest Pakistan is puzzled, Wen made it a point to fly down to Islamabad after visiting Delhi. Says Chen, “China’s good relations with Pakistan have served as a cornerstone of its overall interests in South Asia since the 1960s. Beijing certainly wants to enhance its relations with India, but it will also try its very best to maintain Chinese-Pakistani cooperation.” Agrees Jacques, “The relationship with Islamabad is of fundamental importance to Beijing. India should have a strategy designed to engage with China in a way that it weakens the latter’s relationship with Pakistan.”

Indian officials, though, feel Sino-Pak bonding is likely to grow, especially because of Afghanistan. Beijing wants Islamabad to take care of the security aspect by striking deals with the Taliban leadership and Kabul. This would enable China to enter the Afghan economy after the American withdrawal. Such an eventuality could add yet another worrying strand to the Sino-India relations. But that’s still in the future. Thus far, New Delhi hopes better relations with Beijing could change the India-Pakistan equation as well.

– Pranay Sharma