India plays Chinese checkers

India plays Chinese checkers

Neighbourhoods can be a trying experience. Those who live next door can be friends one day and foes the next. Ties between adjacent countries are no different. China and India have had this kind of relationship for a long time, with conflict crowding out cooperation since 1947.

It would be wrong to say that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit, commencing today, will change matters. Most likely it won’t for the causes of mistrust and conflict are deep and unlikely to be resolved soon. If anything, this aspect of the relationship has been heightened in the recent past. This, it has been argued, has come about because a new generation of leaders, civil and military, has come to the fore, one that does not believe in Deng Xiaoping’s adage to “keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead—but aim to do something big".

The result is that China, after a brief glow of warmth in ties, has taken steps such as issuing stapled visas for visitors from Jammu and Kashmir, launched aggressive probing of the Indian border and has, in general, assumed a negative tone towards India. At the same time, India’s ties with the US have grown.

The “China angle" in this development can hardly be ignored or denied for that matter. Indian fears of China and Chinese anxieties over Containment 2.0 are there for all to see.

There are, however, areas where India can deftly engage with China and also remove some irritants. The stapled visa issue, as the Chinese have indicated, can be resolved. Some pressing trade concerns, such as the large imbalance in trade, very largely in China’s favour, can also be addressed meaningfully. It is high time the two countries signed a free-trade agreement and also laid some ground rules to ease the flow of investment in the two countries.

Where India cannot expect any concessions is in the strategic realm. It is, for example, futile to seek Chinese support for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Here, and in other areas where India seeks to expand its global presence, China’s efforts to checkmate its neighbour have been constant. To expect otherwise would be naïve. Understanding the limits of what India can and what it can’t do with China is the first step in easing ties with Beijing.

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