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From distrust to tango

India and China will be seeking a modus vivendi on bilateral irritants, in a bid to carve out political space in a changed world order.

india Updated: Jun 18, 2003 15:36 IST

Just five years ago Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee cited his deep "distrust" of China in a communication to then US president Bill Clinton as a rationale for India's nuclear tests.

As he flies to Beijing June 22 on an epochal six-day visit that will be watched keenly by the rest of the world, Asia's two giants - and the world's two most populous nations - will be seeking a modus vivendi on a range of bilateral irritants, from their territorial dispute to ties with Pakistan, in a bid to carve out their political and economic space in a vastly changed world order.

Vajpayee's visit comes a full 10 years after then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao signed an agreement with the Chinese leadership to maintain peace and tranquillity along their 4,500-km border that was contested in a bitter war in 1962.

"The visit is important in terms of symbolism," says C. Uday Bhaskar, deputy director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, who visited China a month ago with Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes.

"It is remarkable that in these five years India and China have arrived at some kind of political accommodation to facilitate a summit even as their bilateral trade has spiralled."

Vajpayee's "distrust" of China and Fernandes's subsequent characterisation of the country as the predominant threat to India deeply offended and angered Beijing and bilateral ties, which were set on an improvement course since prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in December 1988, went into a freeze.

The climb back to normalcy was slow and, to mollify the Chinese, it needed top-level clarifications from India that New Delhi did not perceive Beijing as a threat.

Hu Junduo, the Chinese ambassador to India, said the Vajpayee visit emerged from "two major consensuses". One, that the two sides should not allow their historical baggage to stand in the way of development of their relations and, two, neither country should see the other as a threat.

The Chinese were also gratified that India chose to ignore the global fear of SARS -- a disease that has claimed over 730 lives in that country and which it is still battling to wipe out the vestiges of the viral epidemic -- to go ahead with the prime ministerial visit.

"The Chinese are seeing in this a significant gesture," said an Indian official, noting that Vajpayee's would only be the second major diplomatic visit, after that of the French prime minister last week, since the severe acute respiratory syndrome broke out in Guangdong province last November and afflicted nearly 6,000 people throughout the country.

Uday Bhaskar sees in China's desire for rapprochement a felt need to "adjust their anxieties and aspirations to the global systemic and national compulsions" in the wake of American unilateralism, post-Cold War realities and the dynamics of globalisation.

China seeks peace and tranquillity on its borders so that it does not get distracted from its avowed goal of becoming a developed nation by 2020-25. India similarly has great power aspirations and wishes to turn the perceived political and economic threat from China into an advantage to the benefit of both.

"The population of India and China constitute one-third of the world's total. If these two countries are to join hands, the 21st century could be turned into an Asian century," Vajpayee told President Hu Jintao when he met him for the first time in St. Petersburg on May 31.

The developing political entente has been reflected most dramatically on the economic front. Two-way trade touched five billion dollars last year, a nearly 20-fold increase over the $200 million-plus figure in the early 1990s.

Bilateral trade, according to Chinese government figures, witnessed a phenomenal growth of 70.8 percent in the first four months of this year. During the same period, Indian exports to China jumped by 100.5 percent against the corresponding period last year, resulting in a trade surplus of $350 million in India's favour.

Though no big agreements are expected to be signed during the visit, a joint statement is expected to reflect the "broad principles" for resolving the border tangle in three sectors -- western, central and eastern -- with all their accompanying geographical complexities as well as laying down the parameters for future cooperation on a wide range of areas.

It remains to be seen how the two countries reconcile divergences over China's continued military assistance to Pakistan, which New Delhi feels has enabled Islamabad to develop its nuclear and missile potential that is a great threat to this country.

Many Chinese experts apparently feel that since the Beijing-Islamabad nexus was a spill-over from its Cold War approach to the region, any improvement in relations with New Delhi would not just tilt India's economic and political weight in the Chinese calculus but minimise the strategic import of the Islamabad axis.

The growing strategic closeness between India and the United States too is impacting on the way Beijing looks at New Delhi and, according to strategic expert C. Raja Mohan, "an emerging Sino-American rivalry and an Indo-U.S. entente could alter the dynamics of the region".

First Published: Jun 16, 2003 13:15 IST