onfucius said, “It is better to play than do nothing.” Thu-rsday’s joint statement issued by the governments of India and China heeds this advice and takes India-China relations to a safe, digressionary level. Critics have pointed to the vacuous nature of the statement, drawing our notice to the ‘failures’ of not addressing key issues such as border disputes, the recognition of Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India, Pakistan’s role as a terror factory and the gargantuan trade deficit between the world’s second largest economy and India. But the fact of the matter is that
Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit was never meant to be a game-changing jaunt. China’s continued silence on India’s candidacy for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council and the Kashmir issue — symbolised by the ‘stapled visa’ tangle — are keeping in with the diplomatic trajectory of a nettlesome neighbour with the luxury of economic and geo-political strength. It would have been fantastical to expect Mr Wen to be critical of an old ally, Pakistan, that too on Indian soil. So his departure immediately after New Delhi to Islamabad and his silence on 26/11 were as keeping to the script as India’s protracted and genuine concerns about Beijing feeding the mouth that bites our country.
Mr Wen’s visit didn’t signal any forward movement or retrogressive steps. What it did quietly signal in the cover of all those platitudes and exchanges of friendship bordering on an old filial slogan — that means as much today as much as it did in the 1950s and very early 1960s — is that China is willing to take a sideways step to start things from, if not scratch but at least from a new perspective. This presents India with opportunities not present (or worth its while) before. In a sense, New Delhi’s withdrawal of any references to Chinese sovereignty in Tibet and ‘One China’ that former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee introduced in 2003 and was part of the past three summit-level declarations, was a realisation of that ‘chip’ being worthless.
India has troubles with China and cosying up on a sofa marked ‘the Asian century’ means little if the two don’t sit across tables to hammer out their differences. But if there’s anything that India should read into the fortune cookie after Mr Wen’s visit, it is not to mistake the levers pressed with regular intervals by China (territorial disputes, the Dalai Lama etc) for the real bone of contention. The real issue that will need future, less playful sit-downs is how these levers are pressed to project one’s own influence in a neighbourhood which happens to be an interesting part of the world.