Trends in China's South Asia Policy
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Issue Vol 26.1 Jan-Mar 2011 | Date : 08 Apr , 2011

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India and thereafter to Pakistan in December 2010 can be ascribed to as being a ‘withering’ one as far as India is concerned and an ‘all-weather’ one in the case of Pakistan. Premier Wen’s India sojourn could not provide any tangible breakthrough to the on hand stalemates and was thus bland in a sense, given the long drawn out list of irritants in the India-China relationship. Despite the fact that both China and India have made efforts to peacefully co-exist and grow within Asia—the existential reality is that both are leading engines of economic growth with China being the fastest-growing economy in the world followed by India. This naturally leads to aspirations towards achieving great power status, both within and beyond Asia, often foretelling the possibilities of a clash of interests.

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Economic Convergence

China’s agenda appeared coherently lucid—that of opting to focus exclusively on the ‘economics’ of the bilateral relationship shared between Beijing and New Delhi. This was reflected in a statement by Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister, Hu Zhengyue, when he said that Premier Wen’s visit to India claimed to “…strengthen high level contacts to enhance strategic mutual trust and expand bilateral trade…” The ensuing posture seemed like a natural corollary with China paying no heed to the contentious aspects of the Indo-China relationship. China’s unambiguous intent of securing maximum economic benefits from India was mirrored in the huge trade delegation comprising more than 300 leaders/representatives of leading Chinese business houses who accompanied Premier Wen on his visit.

“¦the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency which depicted the Sino-Indian border to be only 2,000 kms””coming in as a complete shocker and a jagged forewarning regarding Chinese intent”¦

Indo-China bilateral trade is touted to touch $60 billion as 2010 drew to a close. According to a statement made by Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, both nations strive to take the bilateral trade volume up to $100 billion by 2015, and further expand cooperation in sectors such as investment, high-technology and energy. By virtue of sealing trade deals with New Delhi worth $16 billion and consensus to establish an China-India Strategic Economic Dialogue and CEO Forum, China has made sure that the ‘economics’ of China’s relationship with India will be a key precursor especially in light of the fact that China feels a greater need to enlarge its share of the market in India. However, it would be noteworthy to mention here that New Delhi has still not agreed to sign a free trade agreement with China.

New Delhi, on its part needs to take cognisance and tread cautiously towards Chinese business overtures given that New Delhi mainly exports only primary commodities and imports finished products. On the contrary, China seeks greater access to the Indian markets for its goods and services. When it comes to minerals, China is known to have deposits that are two-and-half times that of India. Yet it is safeguarding its own reserves and in turn, importing iron ore from India. Trends such as these could prove to be detrimental in the long-run from an Indian perspective. Besides, India suffers a swelling trade deficit with China—that touched approximately $16 billion in October 2010, largely since the Chinese exports to India are nearly double of India’s exports to China.

Strategic Divergence

The foremost issue that has relentlessly caused considerable unease in the calmness of Indo-China ties is the seemingly interminable territorial and boundary dispute between the two. China has more than often adopted an aggressive posture–visibly manifested with helicopter incursions into Indian airspace made by Chinese MI helicopters at Chumar, northeast of Leh, along the border followed by similar incidents of Chinese Border Guards of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) violating the International Border yet again in Leh in the second half of 2009. In fact, these incidents constitute just few in many, both, in Arunachal Pradesh and the Ladakh sector, despite signing of the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) of 1993 and the agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field signed in 1996.

“¦it is time that China reciprocates Indias gesture given that New Delhi had principally supported the Chinese candidature at the UNSC since the inception of PRC in 1945.

Just prior to Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India, came a report carried by the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency which depicted the Sino-Indian border to be only 2,000 kms—coming in as a complete shocker and a jagged forewarning regarding Chinese intent towards resolution of the Indo-China boundary dispute. Much in disparity to the Chinese claims, India pronounces the border to be approximately 3,488 kms long. In this context, any possibility of a ‘miscommunication’ could be disregarded on part of China, given that the figures quoted in the Xinhua report were based on an official briefing by Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister, Hu Zhengyue to the Beijing press corps. China’s persistent reluctance to resolve the dispute and contrarily engage in tactics such as mentioned above has prevented the emergence of a genuine thaw in the relationship.

Adding to Indian qualms are a series of steps that Beijing has preferred to opt for which would only attribute a negative connotation in so far as the future trajectory of Sino-Indian relations are concerned. These include: Indian discomfort over rapid and robust infrastructure build-up being embarked upon by Beijing in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), especially in the border areas with India—the larger concern gyrating around China’s well-planned military modernisation programme, which certainly remains in stark contrast to its proclaimed policy of a ‘peaceful rise’; continuing support and assistance to arm Pakistan, both by conventional weapon systems as well as by drawing parity to the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal with its latest twin-nuclear reactor deal at Chasma III and IV; supporting Pakistan’s diplomatic position on Kashmir by issuing stapled visas to Kashmiri residents in India—thereby questioning the status of Jammu & Kashmir with respect to the Indian Union [Premier Wen remained evasive on the visa issue during the course of his India visit]; and China’s refusal to agreeing upon the mention of terrorism emanating out of Pakistan or even for that matter, vehemently condemning the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks.

On the issue of India’s candidature for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, Premier Wen did not explicitly come out in support of India’s bid. However, it is time that China reciprocates India’s gesture given that New Delhi had principally supported the Chinese candidature at the UNSC since the inception of PRC in 1945. Additionally, what could be inferred as a very discernible Indian diplomatic retort, the joint communiqué following Premier Wen’s visit did not contain an Indian commitment to a “one China” policy or the mention of Tibet–a significant departure from positions taken in the past. Significantly, this move follows India’s participation in the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at Oslo to confer the honour to jailed Chinese dissident leader Liu Xiaobo. China condemned the ceremony as a ‘political farce’ urging nations to boycott the ceremony—a request which India chose to ignore.

Editor’s Pick

The strategic divergences that remain at the core were out in the open yet again during Premier Wen’s visit to India with coinciding reports of China nearing completion of a 3.3 km Galongla tunnel that will connect TAR’s Metok County bordering Arunachal Pradesh to China’s national highway system. Metok holds special significance in that it is TAR’s last remaining county which is remote and remains cut-off for a major part of the year owing to rough weathers condition and in addition is also the point from which the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) enters India.

The ‘All-Weather’ Sino-Pak Relationship

Premier Wen’s visit to India was followed up by a three-day visit to Pakistan where he pledged closer strategic ties between Islamabad and Beijing and reaffirmed the two nations as geo-strategic allies. While delivering an address to a joint session of Pakistan’s Parliament, Premier Wen reiterated, “…cement and advance the all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation between China and Pakistan is our common strategic choice.” China and Pakistan drew focus towards extending the gamut of existent cooperation crucially including strengthening of infrastructure and energy (both conventional and renewable) cooperation. With bilateral trade between China and Pakistan presently placed at around $7 billion, proposals such as setting up economic zones and signing 13 trade and commercial deals worth approximately $30 billion are seen as being primarily aimed at rescuing Pakistan out of the state of economic disarray that it is currently embroiled in.

The ongoing development projects in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of PoK, which are of strategic significance with regard to the India-China-Pakistan triangle, are testament to this intent.

Among the infrastructure reconstruction projects that China and Pakistan have continually accorded importance, is the repair and consequent upgradation of the Karakoram Highway. The National Highway Authority (NHA) of Pakistan and the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) signed an agreement for the reconstruction/rehabilitation of the Karakoram Highway. According to views expressed in the Lahore-based Daily Times, NHA Chairman, Altaf Ahmed Chaudhry said that a 17 km road will be constructed on a new alignment while a 7 km section will be rehabilitated. Chaudhry also accepted that the current project includes construction of two tunnels, two bridges and 70 culverts.

As far as China is concerned, the Karakoram Highway is integral to keep Pakistan’s military strength sustained against India. Keeping India engaged through the channel of ‘spoiler state’ Pakistan has been Beijing’s foreign policy objective for a long time. The ongoing development projects in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of PoK, which are of strategic significance with regard to the India-China-Pakistan triangle, are testament to this intent. Indian concerns on China’s growing connectivity with Pakistan by means of linkages through the occupied territory of J&K have already been placed on record in the 2008-09 Annual Report of the Ministry of Defence (tabled in the Rajya Sabha). The report states that “… enhancing connectivity with Pakistan through the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, illegally occupied by China and Pakistan will have direct military implications for India.”

If on the one hand, India and China failed to resolve the contentious subject of future defence exchanges, on the other hand, Premier Wen’s call for further enhancement of military exchanges between China and Pakistan only seeks to fortify their partnership hereafter. According to a Xinhua news report, during Premier Wen’s meetings with Pakistan’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Khalid Shameem Wynne, Chief of the Army Staff, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Chief of the Naval Staff, Noman Bashir and Chief of the Air Staff, Rao Qamar Suleman, a mutual appreciation of the role that military collaboration has played between Beijing and Islamabad was agreed upon.

Concluding Observations

IDR_subscriptionSince the time when Mao Zedong stood before a sea of people at Tiananmen Gate sixty one years ago, and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing has geared up to showcase its arrival and resultant prowess to the Asian region. China is operationalizing various channels that constitute a part of its negotiating strategy to deal with all outstanding disputes (including one shared with India). China appears to be pursuing a subtle yet lucid policy of keeping India pinned to the sub-continent. This has widely been marked in activities undertaken by China in India’s neighbourhood—thus buttressing that it is about time that New Delhi gets into a realist stock-taking mode. The realist mode according to me could be described as one which counteracts and negates the understanding that the economic facet of Sino-Indian ties would constitute the key to the success of the future relationship. In all firmness, economic stakes and convergences cannot take the liberty of discounting the existential strategic divergences which shall only confirm to becoming a future spoiler in the Sino-Indian relationship, as both contend for a larger share of the global economic and strategic pie.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Monika Chansoria

Senior Fellow and Head of China-study Programme, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi

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