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Atal's visit was all about trust, peace

The most noteworthy lines in the India-China joint declaration may well have been the following: "The two countries are not a threat to each other". An analysis of Atal's visit by Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

india Updated: Nov 06, 2003 21:44 IST

The most noteworthy lines in the joint declaration that emerged from Atal Bihari Vajpayee's official visit to China may well have been the following: "The two countries are not a threat to each other. Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other."

Innocuous, but they capture the number one goal of Sino-Indian relations in the 21st century.

India and China are nouveau powers. Each passing year they exert more influence, further afield, in more parts of the world. Both know nothing would be more damaging to their respective ambitions than a collision with the other. "We both see ourselves as having a larger role to perform on the global stage and want relations to be non-confrontational," said an Indian official.

Which is why the pacific principles of Panchsheel was the mantra of the visit, chanted by both sides whenever possible. New Delhi sought to hark back to a "pre-conflict Sino-Indian relationship." Indian officials are pleased both sides "separately and together" mentioned Panchsheel during the visit.

And to make sure the message is not lost, the two governments plan to mark the 50th anniversary of the Panchsheel declaration in April next year. It's about "keeping us away from conflict mode," explains VR Raghavan, formerly director-general military operations of the Indian army.

Vajpayee made the point at his Peking University address: "The simple truth is that there is no objective reason for discord between us, and neither of us is a threat to the other. These simple, but profound, principles should form the bedrock of the future India-China partnership."

Just before the visit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made similar noises. China's "new security concept" revolved around stability, he said.

Beijing's main priority was a "sound environment in its surrounding areas" so China could focus on "modernisation" and "national reunification." Translation: We don't want hassles with our neighbours. We need to build our economy. If we have a foreign policy concern, it's grabbing back Taiwan.

The "no threat" bit of the joint declaration, say Indian officials, was an attempt to "bury the hatchet" after New Delhi blundered by citing the yellow peril as the rationale for the 1998 Pokhran II nuclear tests. That came too close to saying a clash of the Asian titans was inevitable.

Premier Wen offered his own reassurance, saying the day before the Indian delegation landed that China "will never seek hegemony."

In New Delhi's eyes, the "no threat" clause was one of three significant new clauses that were part of the joint declaration.

The second bit was the line agreeing to defence exchanges, a direct result of the preparatory visit to China by Defence Minister George Fernandes. "Military exchanges puts the relationship one step higher," said an Indian official. It's also important because the People's Liberation Army remains a bastion of anti-Indian sentiment in the Middle Kingdom's ruling apparatus.

The third modest leap forward was a setting up of a joint study group. "This is about far more than just trade," say Indian officials. The idea is to move towards a "comprehensive trade package" that runs through everything from customs to investment. It's also important because of the unwritten hope that it will have an impact on the Sino-Pakistani axis.

Vajpayee did not raise the roof about China's nuclear hobnobbing with Pakistan on purpose. New Delhi knew Beijing would just roll its standard response, "Our relationship with Pakistan is not aimed at any third country." The idea, said an official, "is that if we develop stakes in each other, it will weaken stakes we will have in other countries." Which other country is obvious.

This is not to say the border dispute is irrelevant. New Delhi has no doubt this nettle will have to tackled eventually. But it is determined not to let territorial nitpicking obscure the much larger stakes of the bilateral relationship.

India's successful pitch was to sell the idea of having special representatives discuss the border dispute. Vajpayee had made this suggestion in 1979 without success. This time, Beijing was ready.

The expectation is that these one-on-one talks will bring a "political perspective" to bear on this mind-numbing debate. New Delhi wanted to go beyond the two countries "parroting principles and formulae" without being able to agree on what these mean. "Principles need a political perspective," said an official. And that's where the representatives will come in.

Former foreign secretary, JN Dixit, while mildly critical that India allowed such a "detailed" formulation on Tibet, is among those who hopes the representatives will provide "new impetus" to the border talks.

New Delhi has no doubts. Vajpayee's visit was about buffering relations between Asia's two power-climbers. "It was about agreeing that ours was not a zero-sum game." Or, as the Indian prime minister told a Chinese audience, ensuring both sides understood "the difference between healthy competition and divisive rivalry."

That the two could muster a Sikkim-Tibet trade-off was "icing on the cake," a bonus the Indian delegation had not banked on when they left for Beijing 10 days ago. They had carried not maps, but a much bigger picture in their briefing books.

First Published: Nov 06, 2003 21:44 IST