As Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh completed his visit to Beijing, both countries have expressed relative satisfaction at the outcome of the visit. Although several issues discussed between the two sides were not made public, the joint statement of October 23, 2013, and nine agreements/MoUs between the two premiers, interviews by the PM and officials indicate to mixed results. Overall, it appears that the visit brought forth the issue of continuing shadow-boxing between the two establishments in adjusting to their respective ascendancies in the international order. While it is too early to make a cost-benefit balance sheet on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing in October this year, certain broad observations can be made.
Firstly, while the expectations about the Beijing visit were relatively low as suggested by the statements before the visit on the border issue and galloping trade deficit, incremental progress was made in the bilateral relations and interactions at the regional and global levels. Nevertheless, on many issue, it appeared that India hardly secured major gains during this visit.
For instance, the joint statement between the two premiers had no mention on the United Nations Security Council reform or the Indian membership status. Earlier China had stated, as a part of the Russia-India- China trilateral and then at the BRICS meetings, that it supports Indian aspirations to “play a greater role” in United Nations Security Council (UNSC) but even this phrase is missing in the current statement. Was the Beijing visit really successful, then?
Beijing and the undercurrents
Unlike the Russian, British, French and the United States explicit and unconditional support to Indian candidature in the UNSC, the Chinese position on this issue appeared to be insisting on extracting “pound of flesh” from India. Some analysts in China suggested that Indian joint bidding with Japan in the G-4 process had led to China’s reluctance to back New Delhi.
However, even after abandoning the G-4 process, no Chinese support was forthcoming. Some others suggested that “regional states concerns” (meaning in this case Pakistan) should be taken into consideration before addressing the UNSC reforms. This meant that consensus cannot be achieved and the whole reform process should have to be shelved. If similar conditions were implemented in the past, possibly China could not have secured the UN membership in 1971 displacing Taiwan. During that time, India unqualifiedly supported China’s candidature. All in all, then there appears to be a stalemate on this issue between New Delhi and Beijing.
Also, China’s position on the Indian candidature at the Nuclear Supplies Group (NSG) has not been clinched during this visit. While China had made a tacit, if not explicit, support to the Indian “advanced nuclear capabilities” as well as bilateral cooperation in civilian nuclear programme at the 2008 International Atomic Energy Agency and NSG meetings, it made no promise or announcement on the NSG membership of India.
The fine print that needs to be read
On the other hand, a week before the PM’s visit China announced the start of its assistance to the Chashma III and IV projects in Pakistan. This indicates the “balancing India” school is still dominant in China and that regardless of Indian opposition to the nuclear assistance of China to Pakistan, Beijing has enough muscle power in the international system to overcome concerns.
Secondly, on the minimalist foreign policy objectives, the joint statement is relatively silent on the time frame in resolving the territorial dispute that had plagued the bilateral relations for more than six decades. Despite more than three decades of discussions on this issue between the two officials, no information about the concrete progress is available in the public domain. However, both signed the China-initiated border defence cooperation agreement to maintain stability on the undefined borders.
Again, no mention on Tibet or Kashmir is forthcoming in the joint statement. After China’s three-fold revisions on Kashmir issue, viz., issuing stapled visas (which appeared to have been now stalled after India’s stout opposition), dual-use investments in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and invitation to Hurriyat leaders (again possibly stalled), India had stopped explicit mention of the “one China” policy, although the January 2008 and other joint statements have conceded to the Chinese position on this issue.
India noticed that China’s position on Kashmir kept changing from advocating self-determination principle to a peaceful resolution, abiding by the Simla Pact and sanctity of the line of control between India and Pakistan and the recent three-fold initiatives. What was clear from these revisions is that China had not been consistent nor any explicit and commensurately reciprocal statements from Beijing were possible. This is a new uncertainty for India’s minimalist national interests.
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Thirdly, in contrast to the above point, however, a lot of ground was covered in the bilateral interaction in multilateral institutions and phenomena. Apart from the “coordinating” activities in East Asian Summit meetings and “positive view” of each other’s roles in SAARC, BIMSTEC and SCO, both countries expressed their view “to further strengthen coordination and cooperation in multilateral forums including Russia-India-China, BRICS, and G-20 to jointly tackle global issues such as climate change, international terrorism, food and energy security, and to establish a fair and equitable international political and economic system”.
However, as compared to the pre-April 2005 period when China viewed India in a South Asian box, bilateral cooperation in multilateral fora is conducive to Indian interests in the long term.
Fourthly, Indian diplomacy seemed to have gained tactical victories on the trans-boundary rivers with more institutional arrangements and significantly tying down the subject to the trust levels in the bilateral relations. The joint statement suggested that “Both sides agreed that cooperation on transborder rivers will further enhance mutual strategic trust and communication as well as strengthen the strategic and cooperative partnership.” This, of course, needs to be seen in future if China’s position undergoes changes or whether it takes a unilateral view of the river waters issue.
India noticed that China’s position on Kashmir kept changing from advocating self-determination principle to a peaceful resolution, abiding by the Simla Pact and sanctity of the line of control between India and Pakistan and the recent three-fold initiatives.
Fifthly, the joint statement and the visit as such appeared to be focused on the economic issues, although it appeared that Indian gains may not be substantial going by the statements issued in Beijing. India had raised the issue of mounting trade deficits which accounted for nearly $23 billion in favour of China in 2012 and expected to increase to more than $30 billion this year. The main problem for India about these trade losses is that this figure accounts for nearly 50 per cent of the current account deficit of the government. The PM had expressed concerns but little was done so far.
Of course, China promised, during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to New Delhi in May this year that they would establish industrial parks. Five states have been identified including Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for this purpose.
However, no mention of this was made in the current joint statement, although one MoU during this visit is related to the road construction activity and China’s assistance in this regard. Also, another MoU dealt with the power sector in which China made rapid strides. For instance, of the estimated 3,00,000 megawatt electricity that India needed, over 60,000 MW of electricity originates from the Chinese supplied generators. However, to counter constant repairs of this equipment, an MoU was signed during this visit for setting up Chinese service centres in India.
Dr. Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU, New Delhi.