Monday, March 25, 2013

China's new president must go beyond platitudes to address India's concerns

Indrani Bagchi- 20 March 2013, 09:33 PM IST
In less than a week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese President Xi Jinping will get their first face time together in Durban. The meeting will be fully scripted, but Xi has already provided a conversation starter.

At his first press conference with Brics journalists, Xi proposed his newly formulated 'panchsheel' to improve Sino-Indian relations. According to the official trans-cript, these are as follows.

First, to maintain strategic communication and keep bilateral relations on the right track; second, harness each other's comparative strength and expand win-win cooperation in infrastructure, mutual investment; third, strengthen cultural ties and increase mutual understanding and friendship between our peoples; fourth, expand coordination and collaboration in multilateral affairs to jointly safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries and tackle global challenges; fifth, accommodate each other's core concerns and handle problems and differences existing between the two countries.

Xi's five-point formula is sort of like motherhood — can't argue with it, but there's really nothing new there. Even on the boundary issue, Xi didn't show any flash of brilliance: "The boundary question is a complex issue left over from history and solving the issue will not be easy. However, as long as we keep up our friendly consultation we can eventually arrive at a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement. Pending the final settlement, the two sides should work together to maintain peace and tranquillity in border areas and prevent the boundary question from affecting the all-round development in ties."

No arguments there. This is exactly what has been happening, give or take a few 'intrusions'. So yes, we all understand that the boundary dispute is complex and will take many years to solve.

After we have got over the euphoria that a Chinese president has actually spent so much time talking about India, it might be worthwhile reflecting that from India's perspective, the top priorities regarding China are distinctly different. Let's turn the telescope around.

For the average Indian, the ballooning trade figures with China mean a couple of things — importing Chinese goods, accessing Chinese loans or supplier's credit is easy, and exporting goods or services immensely difficult. Balancing the economic relationship is a priority.

This means China has to be persuaded to open its markets to India, lowering barriers to imports. China has been stubbornly stingy in this regard, and neither Xi Jinping, nor his premier Li Keqiang addressed this in any meaningful way. (Li, as premier, is in effect the economy czar of the Chinese leadership, and liberalising the economy his chief task.)

One of the things that drives India-US relations even when political investment is minimal is the robustness of the economic relationship, characterised by Indian investment in the US and vice-versa, and job creation in both countries which has helped to deepen India's stakes in the bilateral relationship. This is missing with the Chinese, which actually translates into lower public support for better relations with Beijing.

Competing for space at the top is the future of trans-boundary rivers. Beijing refuses to even acknowledge that each new dam they build on the Brahmaputra contributes to a growing problem. Thus far, Indians have tried to set up a conversation with China and failed; all they get for their efforts is "assurance" that all is well.

Meanwhile, the dam building continues. And at some stage the river diversion project too may be set in motion, completely ignoring India's concerns as a lower riparian state. This would be setting the stage for serious misunderstanding which we need to prepare for, and manage from now.

While Xi talks cooperation in multilateral forums, it means different things to Indians. It's not just the interests of other developing countries that should guide India-China cooperation, but also accommodation of India's concerns and its global aspirations. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the UN Security Council and the four global non-proliferation regimes, where India's candidature is stymied by the Chinese firewall.

There are other forums where India and China do indeed work together, with reasonable success. As a rising superpower, China should legitimately expect support from India for its concerns. Similarly, China has to understand that Indian aspirations too need to be accommodated, because, for all the chaos in India, its rise is inevitable.

Having said this, China's primary strategic concern right now is to create space for itself in the face of what it believes to be US containment, as articulated by their "rebalance". Hence, the investment in Gwadar, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, even Nepal and Maldives. India rightly looks upon these moves as being primarily targeted at India. China needs to address these concerns openly.

China is building significant cyber offensive capabilities and is not shy of using them against India. With typically clumsy beginnings, India is trying to build a cyber-deterrence capability. At some point in the near future, we will get our act together, because it affects the private sector as much as government. Traditional inter-state diplomacy will not work then. We should have a plan now that attempts to bridge the perceptional distances between these two huge neighbours.

But equally, India and China cannot be seen to be at daggers drawn in the Asia-Pacific theatre. There are fundamental differences, particularly in the strategic orientation of both nations. That gap should be managed but cannot be wished away. China and India will be testing old skills in a completely new theatre. That's what Xi Jinping should have said. Maybe Manmohan Singh will do it for him.

Comment: Ans what about China arming Pakistan to the teeth!!

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