New Delhi: Days before external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee meets his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, in Beijing on 5 June, the Indian Air Force flew a sortie to the world’s highest airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldhi, near the Karakoram pass on the Aksai Chin plateau.
An Antonov-32 plane, carrying Western Air Command’s Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief P. K. Barbora, landed at the unpaved airstrip after 43 years on 31 May in an effort to establish regular airlifts that would service soldiers and drop supplies, IAF officials said, pointing out that the army could perform its duties in the area near the Line of Actual Control with “much greater vigour.”
As Mukherjee flies to Guangzhou in a government-owned Embraer jet to inaugurate a new Indian consulate in the rich Chinese trading city on 5 June, strategic analysts say the intended juxtaposition of economic issues with military affairs signals a new confidence in New Delhi’s old and very complex relationship with Beijing.
/Content/Videos/2008-06-04/Jyoti on China.flv
India’s new consulate at Guangzhou comes within months of China opening a consulate in Kolkata, a decision that was taken when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited India in late 2006. Although India has also recently been asking the Chinese for permission to reopen its consulate in Lhasa, shut down just before the 1959 uprising in the Tibetan capital, the decision to go to Guangzhou was taken with an eye on the burgeoning economic relationship between the two countries.
The trade figures only tell part of the story. According to official statistics from 2007, trade stood at $38.69 billion, a whopping 54% increase from the previous year. While the Indian basket still largely comprises iron ore, the Chinese basket has expanded to include consumer goods as well as heavy machinery. The two countries are now aiming for $60 billion in trade by 2010.
Mukherjee will inaugurate the new Indian consulate in Guangzhou, a city which attracts as much as one-fourth of total foreign direct investment in China and accounts for as much as one-third of its trade. Direct flights between Guangzhou and New Delhi have already started.
When Mukherjee flies into Beijing for talks with his counterpart Yang Jiechi, India hopes it will be able to send other key signals to China.
“We want economic warmth, but must have the confidence to resolve the border issue as well as other strategic issues in a fair manner,” a government official said on condition of anonymity.
It is expected that a second round of joint army exercises will take place in India later this year as a follow-up to the first ever joint exercises between the two armies that took place in Kunming last year.
The Indian team, which will be joined by foreign secretary Shivshanker Menon for the Beijing leg of the four-day trip, will also try and get a sense of internal developments in China. Beijing is expected to express its appreciation of the Indian “handling” of the Tibetan issue, especially the torch relay in New Delhi in April.
“Often, we have seen that India plays with both hands on the Tibetan issue. But this time in April, India took strong measures against the Tibetans, and that was appreciated by none other than the Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao,” said a Chinese analyst who sought anonymity.
The question of who will represent India at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics will also be discussed, officials on both sides said, with the Chinese hoping that either Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or Mukherjee himself would go. They pointed out that US President George Bush as well as Russian president Dmitry Medvedev are likely to attend the ceremony.
Another small agreement on the sharing of data on the Brahmaputra river is also likely, in the wake of Indian concerns over floods in the Himachal Pradesh region.
The Chinese side had been reluctant about sharing data in the past, but following the Sichuan earthquake (for which India also sent relief), there seems to be a greater openness on doing so, Indian officials said. Mukherjee will also present the Padma Bhushan award to the 97-year-old Sanskrit scholar Ji Xianlin, who translated the Mahabharat and the Ramayan into Chinese. Ji is the first Chinese to be honoured with the award.