Thursday, June 26, 2003, Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Forging a qualitatively new relationship
News Analysis by Meera Sinha Bhattacharjea, a noted China expert

Mr Vajpayee’s visit to China has, it would seem, accomplished more than was the national expectation, judging by the awkwardly titled joint declaration signed by the two Prime Ministers last Tuesday on the conclusion of the political component of the visit. This is primarily because in the talks, centrality was given to tackling political issues that had blocked the development of the bilateral relationship for all the many years since the Rajiv Gandhi’s visit of 1988, as testified by its long title : Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation between the Republic of India and the Peoples Republic of China.

The cultural component comprises a visit to the magnificent Buddhist caves of Luoyang to symbolise both the antiquity of the links between the two civilisations as well as the extraordinary depth of their cultural sharing and borrowing. With the visit to Shanghai (perhaps the fastest growing city of the East whose modernity challenges that of Tokyo and New York,) that ends his six-day sojourn in China, Mr Vajpayee will return once again to the contemporary material world, to encourage a quantum leap forward in economic interaction and cooperation between the two countries. Long desired, it has been made possible only because of the political understanding reached by the two sides.

Of the issues that have divided India and China over the years, it is only the territorial issue, including the status of Sikkim and Tibet that can appropriately be a matter for bilateral negotiations across a table. Most of the other issues, such as the China-Pakistan relationship, or suspicions of China’s malevolent intentions regarding India, its so-called encirclement of this country and the threat it poses both to Indian security as well as to Indian development etc. were/are political-strategic issues that are by definition not negotiable. At best these can and must be raised in bilateral talks to convey fears and sensitivities which the other side can address.

Or they have to be countered either diplomatically or politically and, in the last analysis by national confidence. Most of these issues have been addressed or raised, in one way or another, in the years and months prior to the visit. Words are often important and the acceptance by both sides that neither poses a threat to the other has helped clear the air, as has the opening of a dialogue on security, on terrorism on global issues, as well as the revival of military contacts. And Pokhran 2 plus enhanced conventional military capability, and improved economic growth have undoubtedly added to Indian confidence and self reliance.

This process has been helped along by the new relationship with the USA while Mr Vajpayee’s offer to Pakistan (paralleled by the resumption of a Tibet-China dialogue) has been welcomed enabling both to make further ‘adjustments’ to earlier positions. In addition the overall tranquility in the border areas, the passage of time, the new generation of leadership in both countries as well as the growing interest in China’s stunning economic development and the recognition that India, too, needs to catch up have significantly changed the public mood.

Nevertheless, there appeared to be a greater focus on the economic than on the political on the run-up to the visit. No agreement was expected on the border given the complex nature of the territorial issue, and there has been none. But the decision to open border trade across Nathu La in Sikkim has far-reaching political and territorial significance. It amounts to a reaffirmation, of the political reality of Sikkim as part of India and Tibet as part of China, that has anyway been consolidated over time, via the expected day to day activity of traders and border personnel of both sides. The formal recognition desired by both can come at a later date, perhaps as part of an overall and final border settlement.

This agreement, given its political implications, may not have been possible without the stand taken by the Dalai Lama. He has recently restated that his demand is for autonomy, not for independence and separation from China. He also reopened a dialogue with the Chinese Government, just weeks before Mr Vajpayee’s visit, and Beijing’s response seems constructive. Nevertheless, there will continue to be concern in this country for the future of the Tibetan people, not as an act of state but as a humanitarian concern. Meanwhile, great benefits that can flow from cross-border trade, tourism and even pilgrimage have been denied to the people of the region, including the Tibetan people, for all these decades. These can now be restored and encouraged. Hopefully, two great neighbours can now proceed to build the comprehensive cooperation called for in the Declaration while continuing to seek a fair, rational and peaceful resolution of the territorial issue.

Basically, the declaration, building on the many separate agreements of the past, sets the relationship firmly on the path of non confrontation. It is anchored in the five principles that the two states had elaborated in 1954 which in the post Iraq-War two world, need to be taken as norms of state behaviour and as protection for the sovereign rights of states in an era when these are being weakened and doctrinally questioned. The declaration is also grounded on a realistic acceptance of differences in the national perceptions and interests of the two countries which urges the strengthening of shared commonalities.

As indicated, the driving commonalities are three-fold: determination of each for comprehensive national development; the consequent desire to minimise tensions and optimise cooperation at the bilateral, regional and global levels ; and thirdly, the shared desire to strengthen and contribute to the evolution of a multipolar world.

Interestingly, there is a new flavour in the wording and language of the declaration that emphasises shared interests, cooperation, equality of the two sides and a greater emphasis on mutuality of interest, contribution and benefit. And finally, the declaration promises to institutionalise and regularise meetings at ministerial level, and of the Joint Economic Group and to set up a new group to examine possibilities of economic cooperation. The political monitoring and guidance of the border problem has been raised to the unexpectedly high level of the National Security Adviser and the senior most vice-Minister in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All in all, much has been achieved on paper. It remains to be seen how much of this can and will be translated into policy and practice.

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