Saturday, November 09, 2013

Beijing outpaces New Delhi

There has been a sour touch in some of the commentary on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's October 21-23 visit to China, suggesting that little or nothing was achieved by it.
But what did you expect? The circumstances of the visit ensured that its achievements were, at best, incremental, but not unimportant.
This is because it was very obviously the last visit of an outgoing Indian prime minister and it would have been unusual for the Chinese to have concluded any substantive agreement with him.


But for Singh this was a legacy visit. However, as legacies go, the PM's record on China is mixed. Unlike the Vajpayee period, which saw the Chinese move on Sikkim and shift gears on border negotiations, the Manmohan era has known no significant breakthroughs.
Indeed, the UPA government's singular achievement has been to maintain Sino-Indian relations on an even keel through turbulent wake created by China's rapid rise in the last decade.
Actually, Singh played his own role in rocking the Sino-Indian boat when he signed the Indo-US nuclear deal.
Unlike many of his domestic critics, the Chinese understood the strategic statement of the deal and were understandably spooked. It presaged an Indo-US strategic partnership which would have the effect of constraining Beijing.
The end of the Bush presidency, and, more importantly, the economic crisis of 2008-2009 derailed that project. But the Chinese reacted sharply, putting the Special Representatives talks in a limbo and adopting a tougher posture on the Sino-Indian border issue which they signaled by beginning to refer to Arunachal Pradesh as "South Tibet."

So, Singh's big achievement has indeed been to restore some calm in a relationship which was otherwise deteriorating. By that measure, the agreements and the speeches in Beijing indicate an improvement in relations, albeit, as we said, incremental.

The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) is, as its text itself reveals, a successor to a series of similar agreements beginning with the 1993 agreement for the maintenance of peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The Chinese signatory to this agreement was a Lieutenant General of the People's Liberation Army Sun Jianguo, who is the PLA's Deputy Chief of Staff. Therein lies its real importance, in that it brings a powerful player on border issues into the confidence-building measures regime.
We should be clear that notwithstanding the new BDCA, there will be future episodes of "incursions" and possibly incidents like the one that took place on Depsang Plains earlier this year.
Another significant development was MoU to strengthen cooperation on Trans-Border rivers. Key Indian rivers such as the Sutlej, Indus and the Brahmaputra originate in the Tibet region of China. What happens there, natural events like landslides and floods or the construction of dams and diversion of waters have consequences downstream. The international law on this is weak and so far we have no agreement with China on the river waters.
In the past, the Chinese committed to provide hydrological information which could assist Indian flood control and power generation efforts. But now they have recognised in the MoU that transborder rivers are assets of value "to the socioeconomic development of all riparian countries." This is a tiny step, but could form the basis of a future negotiations and a possible water sharing agreement which could address India's concerns as a lower riparian.


China's Premier Li Keqiang (left) visits the Forbidden City with Manmohan Singh

Among Singh's outreach efforts, perhaps the most important was his address to the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China. The school in Beijing trains party officials, has been headed by party luminaries in the past - Xi Jinping was president between 2007- 2013 - and its current head is Liu Yunshan, fellow politburo standing committee member. But it provided Singh the chance to directly address those who matter in the Chinese system - the senior Communist Party leadership.
The PM repeated what he has long believed - that India and China were not destined to clash and that they had enough room to grow together. This was an oblique comment on fears in China that India could join a US-led containment of China, and similar fears in India that China was creating a "string of pearls".
He was at pains to point out that India's strategic partnerships were defined by our own interests and were "not directed against China or anyone else." At the same time India expected "a similar approach from China."


Singh was right to emphasise what India can gain from China - investment and expertise to transform its infrastructure, expertise in agriculture and manufacturing sectors, cooperation in energy security and mitigating climate change, and political cooperation in ensuring that our neighbourhood remains stable and peaceful.
In all these areas it is in our interests to cooperate with the Chinese, whose economic and military power significantly outpaces ours. The Chinese are hard-headed and pragmatic people. What works best with them are facts on the ground. What will affect their behavior towards us is the pace of our economic growth and the nature of our military modernisation and border defence construction, not slogans, agreements and MoUs.
Unfortunately for India, the timing of the visit is not propitious. It was conducted by the leader of a government which is on its way out, without any clear indication as to who will form the next government. The economy remains in the doldrums and is in urgent need of reform which, in turn, is linked to the outcome of the next general election, still six months away.
On the other hand, in China, the new leadership that took office earlier this year has consolidated itself and is displaying uncommon vigour in the conduct of its domestic and foreign policies. One could say they are running rings around India, but that would be unfair. At this stage India is not even competing.
Mail Today October 29, 2013

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