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Taste of China

There has been avoidable preoccupation in some quarters with the timing of Atal Bihari Vajpayee?s visit to China; indeed, even its purpose. Without doubt, the PM is right to go. The trip would have been rendered impossible in a few months time as the country enters election mode.

india Updated: Jun 23, 2003 21:46 IST

There has been avoidable preoccupation in some quarters with the timing of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to China; indeed, even its purpose. Without doubt, the PM is right to go. The trip would have been rendered impossible in a few months time as the country enters election mode. As such, this may be his last practical opportunity to visit an important neighbour before his term expires.

Even if Vajpayee were to be re-elected as leader, his failure to go to China — in protocol terms, it is our turn — during his first complete tenure could have conveyed negative diplomatic signals when none was intended, and this could conceivably have had an unhappy fallout. Besides, the PM’s Beijing trip has been in the works for some time and its planning has had to be pushed back for a variety of reasons. As such, the timing is the result of peculiarity of circumstances, rather than any consideration of diplomacy.

In any event, to have not gone at all was, frankly, unthinkable, given China’s standing and the state of our relations. If anything, the government has taken the trouble to leaven Vajpayee’s path by making Defence Minister George Fernandes, whose anti-China antecedents are impressive, precede him. A moment’s reflection makes clear why.

Quite apart from irrevocably burying the diplomatic ungainliness — which had stung China into unseasonal hostility — of attributing Pokhran II (in a letter to the Americans) to the urge to counter a possible Chinese threat, the Vajpayee visit serves another valid purpose. It conveys to Beijing at the highest level that India continues to see relevance in a relationship of normality with it even while the boundary question remains pending.

We may object to the prime minister’s China trip if we can demonstrate that exchanges at that level, when the boundary issue remains unresolved, hurt India’s interest. In that event, of course, we shall have to question India’s stance toward China going all the way back to Rajiv Gandhi’s ice-breaking 1988 visit in response to overtures by Deng Xiaoping. Such an exercise has not seriously engaged anyone’s attention.

It is necessary to note, nevertheless, that the reason for seeking to maintain normal ties with China cannot lie in the political sphere, given the state of our ties, even if the two countries may share some perceptions about the changing world such as entertaining reservations about the US desire for global domination. It is, in fact, hard to see India and China act energetically and in unison on any key global political matter.

Thus, whatever the occasional rhetoric, India and China are quite far from being in a position to attempt moving in the direction of establishing a strategic relationship. Such an equation derives critically from a broad convergence of views and the willingness to act together on regional and international issues, and a flourishing and irritant-free bilateral relationship. This simply does not obtain at present. Nor is such a state likely over the middle term.

We should also be quite clear that it will be something of a miracle if the Vajpayee visit can make serious headway on the boundary question. Impressions gained during a visit to China about a year-and-a-half ago lead this writer to believe that Beijing will be quite disinclined to make positive moves on the boundary issue.

Currently, it is in no mood to accept the McMahon Line as a reasonable basis to move ahead in the eastern sector, although, with Myanmar, it has settled precisely on that basis! It hints that Tawang should go to it since the Dalai Lama was born in the area, although Chou En-lai had made no issue of this. Even for the middle sector, where differences are minor, only ‘sample’ maps have been exchanged after more than a decade’s deliberations. Dialogue may plough on as regards the western sector, but areas of the original J&K state ceded to China by Pakistan will be brought into discussion only when India and Pakistan have resolved Kashmir between them. The Chinese do not believe that ‘mutual understanding’, without which resolving the boundary will be impossible, exists between New Delhi and Beijing.

The stark truth is that China is apprehensive that making a final settlement of the boundary with India may neutralise the leverage it has with Pakistan, one of whose effects could be to increase its vulnerability to extremist Islam in Xinjiang. India’s political response in the boundary context should follow deliberate consideration on Tibet and Taiwan, but is not a matter of panic or urgency since India already holds ground in the east.

We should, all things considered, quite clearly acknowledge that possibly the very pragmatic reason at present for maintaining equable ties with Beijing is economic and the considerable potential benefits that lie embedded in this field.

But this, let us also note, is a good enough reason, and one which may, even if not in the foreseeable future, allow for a modicum of political conviviality later.

It is sometimes suggested that the real advantage of dealing with China — even before the resolution of the boundary — is that it permits a tension-free border situation to exist in our east; else we might be militarily sandwiched between two hostile neighbours. This is an exaggerated notion. For all the trappings of great power status that it may possess, China, of late, has become a deeply troubled society, internally.

Its steady embrace of capitalism has reportedly led to the emergence of class struggle in the countryside. World Bank estimates are that about 120 million people live in abject poverty — on about one dollar a day. The unemployment of ‘millions’ of workers with the erosion of the public sector, the increase in regional disparities and the dangerous deepening of the rich-poor divide (in terms of what economists call the ‘Gini-coefficient’) — acknowledged by the State Council’s Poverty Alleviation Office — point to features of life in China that cannot but cause unease to its leadership.

The political structure has coped well with these discontents through the free use of authoritarian-military means. But the Left in the party, although scattered, is not silent. The Falun Gong, which frightens the leadership, is carefully suppressed but not quiescent. In its present condition, China may contemplate military interventions against any neighbour only at considerable economic and internal political cost to itself. Besides, the government is embarked on a massive project to rapidly develop the utterly neglected western part of the country, home to 350 million aggrieved people.

In this overall scenario, the case for pushing the economic agenda between India and China — to the mutual benefit of both — is a natural one. The potential is very inviting indeed. In ‘purchasing power parity’ terms, China’s economy is of the order of about $ 5 trillion,

and India’s about $ 3 trillion — a total of $ 8 trillion plus. The foreign trade between the two has grown ten-fold in a dozen years, suggesting complementarities despite alarmist cries in India of the Chinese flooding us out in our own market.

China has lately emerged as a great trading nation — foreign trade accounting for a greater proportion of its GDP than is the case with even the US. With WTO entry, its competitiveness vis-à-vis many in the west and some in east Asia may be affected. But the new situation could give space to enhanced trade between India and China. Matters can pick up if China make India a preferred destination, as is the case with Australia, New Zealand or southeast Asia. The sector of investments, almost wholly unexplored, also needs a look-in.

It is enough if we see the Vajpayee visit in realistic terms. A steady-state relationship, kept lubricated with high-level exchanges, does both sides good without affecting either negatively.

First Published: Jun 22, 2003 23:23 IST