Sunday, September 08, 2013

Can China and India now press the reset button?

During his visit to the United States earlier this year, Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping gave the call for "a new type of great power relationship" with Washington. Originally the concept was aimed at relations between the Chinese and American militaries, but now it seems to be a catch-word for a reset in Sino-US relations. More interestingly, it could well have become a touchstone for a reset of Chinese relations with India as well.
On Monday, a delegation of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi had occasion to talk with a cross-section of Chinese think tanks, under the auspices of the Central Foreign Affairs University (CFAU), Beijng. This is the school that not only trains Chinese diplomats, but helps diplomats from various countries, including India, learn the Chinese language.


New Delhi is not a "Great Power", no matter what the mandarins in South Block believe, but the ever-pragmatic Chinese appear to be creating room for resetting their relations with India by bringing it under the rubric of a "new type of big power relations". Note, of course, India is seen as a "big" rather than "great" power.

The IAF's display at Daulat Beg Oldi comes at a time when India needs to rejig its relationship with China
The IAF's display at Daulat Beg Oldi comes at a time when India needs to rejig its relationship with China

The official Indian interaction with the new leadership group in China has been short, but intense. It began with the meetings between Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Durban, at the sidelines of the BRICS summit. It took a curious turn when a small squad of the People's Liberation Army pitched tents on what was disputed territory on the Line of Actual Control at Depsang in Ladakh in April.
Subsequently, this team pulled up its tents and enabled a visit by the new Premier of China, Li Keqiang. Thereafter the two countries met for the 16th round of the Special Representatives Dialogue in Beijing and this was followed by a visit of the Indian Defence Minister to China.
Besides the curious occupation in Depsang, which was ended as mysteriously as it began, the interaction has been remarkably positive. Shortly after meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Durban on March 27 Xi Jinping declared that "China and India should improve and make good use of the mechanism of special representatives to strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible." This was a departure from the past when the Chinese seemed to suggest that a border settlement was a problem leftover from history and would be resolved over an unspecified period of time.

Subsequently, the 16th round of talks of the Special Representatives took place in Beijing at the end of June. Speaking about the meeting, Shivshankar Menon, the Indian SR, said that things were going well, considering that the two sides were in the most complex phase of their negotiations. Yang Jiechi, the former Foreign Minister of China who is now a State Councillor and the new Special Representative, said that he was ready to "break new ground" and "strive for the settlement of the China- India boundary question… in a new period".
Further impetus to the normalisation occurred after Chinese defence minister Liang Guanglie visited India in September 2012 and this was followed by a return visit by Indian defence minister A.K. Antony in July this year and held talks with his counterpart Gen Chang Wanquan.
Following the visit, the two sides restored the India-China military to military relationship and set the stage for deeper ties between them. Besides agreeing to take up high-level military exchanges, the two sides said that they would resume joint exercises and conclude a border defence cooperation agreement (BDCA) at the earliest. This BDCA would strengthen the regime of confidence building measures that had been in place since 1993.
Now the two sides are building up to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit, which is likely to take place in October. In addition to the BDCA, the two sides are likely to look at the latest menu being offered by the Chinese which come under three heads, or principles.


1. That India and China continue to maintain and, indeed, deepen, their dialogue so as to promote strategic trust and communication through high level meetings and exchanges between them.
2. That the two sides deepen their cooperation through joint projects, such as the Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar (BICM) corridor, that seeks to link the four countries in a web of infrastructural links which will promote commerce and energy interdependence.
3. The two countries accept each other's interests in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, with the proviso that New Delhi steer clear from taking any sides in the disputes in the East and South China Seas.
Unstated is China's belief that it has done so in our region by taking a neutral position in the India-Pakistan dispute on Kashmir.


At one level the talk of new model relationships, whether with great or big powers can be seen as the fad that accompanies a new leader. But they also reflect a new realism where the Chinese are replacing their formal idealism of treating all sovereign countries as equals and creating special conditions to deal with their more difficult and important relationships.
At another level it reflects the increasing confidence of the Chinese leadership and a realpolitik awareness that they are living in an interdependent world in which the words "victory" and "defeat" are not absolute.
It also reflects an understanding of a world where the US remains the hegemon, but where its relative power has devolved to other "big" actors amongst whom, is India.
Finally, it points to the need for China to cooperate with not just the hegemon, but the other rising poles of the world system.
Essentially, the Chinese, ever pragmatic - and ever dynamic - are looking at their problems and working on them and willing to shift established positions if the situation so demands. This is much more than what could be said about us. We, on the other hand, seem to be trapped in the verities of the past and are unable to move beyond tired slogans and nostrums.
Mail Today August 21, 2013

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