Never easy, Sino-Indian relations may be experiencing a thaw after decades of bitter hostility. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing is likely to be viewed in this light. Cooperation and trade seem to be the catchwords instead of the usual rancour over disputed borders.
Positive noises on nuclear cooperation with India, understanding India’s ambition for a permanent place on the United Nations Security Council, a slew of agreements on various sectors and galloping trade are symptoms of this change. But do they spell a return to normalcy?
The heartening developments in Beijing notwithstanding, the road to a normal relationship is difficult. For one, unlike the Sino-US rapprochement in the 1970s, one that had countering the USSR as a goal, there is no such imperative in the Sino-Indian case. In fact, at the moment, the two countries are on the competitive end of the political spectrum instead of the cooperative side.
The bickering over the $10 billion trade deficit and the global hunt for natural resources are pointers to this continuing rivalry. As oil and natural gas become scarce, competition is likely to increase. At some point the two giants will have to come to an understanding on how to limit problems from such a chase.
Equally, China’s aggressive entry into Indian markets has unnerved many. The question the Indian business community should be asking is if China can do it, why can’t we? State support and cheap labour are only partial truths. The massive demand for Chinese goods in Indian markets tells a different story. Squaring the trade deficit with growing demand for Chinese goods remains a big challenge.
Two, the border dispute continues to be a problem that overshadows everything else in how the two countries view each other. Partly an accident of history, but majorly a product of seriously misguided Indian policy, there is no clear road map to resolve the problem. Unless there is a big political push from the Indian side on border adjustment, the “guiding principles” on resolving the dispute (signed in April 2005) will remain a dead letter. There’s no sign of a push, yet.
If this is not ironed out, things may continue to be where they are. Here, an optimist may say that why not learn from the Sino-US experience: leave the hard issues aside for the moment and concentrate on what is doable. It must be said to the credit of the Chinese that they have been more than willing. Chinese recognition of Sikkim being a part of India, the steady rise in trade and greater military-to-military contact among other positive developments highlight this.
The danger here is from the Indian practice of ignoring hard problems once the more pliable issues such as trade, cultural ties and bilateral cooperation gain ground. There have been 11 rounds of negotiations between the special representatives of India and China on the boundary question. Before that the joint working group had worked on the same issue for many years, to no avail.
That is not the end of India’s woes. Even if a deal is arrived at, how will any government sell it to the Indian people? Such an agreement will be on the basis of some sort of exchange of territory. At various times the Chinese have talked of reaching an understanding on the eastern sector of the border (broadly the McMahon line in Arunachal Pradesh) in exchange for a realistic understanding in the western sector (in Ladakh). That, if it takes place, will certainly create a political storm in the country. So far no government has ever addressed public opinion on the issue.
The challenge is how to move forward while jettisoning debris from the past. It’s in this domain that leadership in the two countries must rise and devise a creative solution.
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