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India, China Cementing Ties

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee concluded a four-day official visit to China last week that witnessed both economic convergences and strategic divergences at the forefront.

Expectedly, the interminable border issue between the two countries was one of the prime subjects on the agenda between Mukherjee and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, and both Beijing and New Delhi vowed to resolve it through productive means in the future.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his visiting Indian counterpart that trade and diplomatic ties would keep improving with cooperation between the two countries, whose combined populations make up a third of humanity. The relationship is "at the best period of development in history and faces important strategic opportunities," official Xinhua Agency quoted Yang as saying.

In response, Xinhua quoted Mukherjee saying, "We will have to resolve these differences through negotiations in a constructive and forward looking manner. We will have to be patient and realistic. Our boundary is peaceful and we are determined to keep it so. We have evolved mechanisms and have gained experience to maintain peace and tranquility in our border areas. While we may have our differences, we will not let them become obstacles to the broadening and deepening of our relationship."

However, this optimism may not be read as very well rooted in history given that as many as eleven rounds of talks on settling the dispute have made scarcely negligible progress, since the mechanism of the representatives of both governments was established in 2003. In 2005, both China and India agreed on a set of political principles during the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao to New Delhi to guide both sides in the task of finding a mutually satisfactory solution.

Significantly, according to sources the Chinese leadership brought up the Sikkim issue as one the matters that remain to be settled. However, from New Delhi's viewpoint, the Sikkim border 'had already been finalized way back in 1959 and there indeed was no dispute' on the same.

Apparently, Beijing claims that its border with Sikkim has yet to be demarcated, though New Delhi firmly believes in the contrary. The timing of China bringing up the border issue at talks needs to be carefully scrutinized in that Beijing appears to be playing the Sikkim card tactically with reference to New Delhi and the latter's firm rebuttal of the said issue makes it amply clear that India is not willing to play into the hands of the Chinese.

Besides, Beijing claims India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh while China occupies areas that India considers parts of its Jammu and Kashmir region. In addition, New Delhi said the two sides also agreed to exchange data on seasonal water flows in cross-border rivers including the Brahmaputra, one of Asia's largest rivers that originate in Tibet.

In a significant speech to students at Peking University, Mukherjee opined, "Today, both our countries require a peaceful external environment. Therefore, we should work together towards peace, security and stability in Asia and beyond. For this, we will need to evolve a security architecture, which takes into account the conditions prevailing in Asia."

"An open and inclusive architecture, which is flexible enough to accommodate the great diversity, which exists in Asia, is needed. We already have some dialogue forums in place, such as the ARF, the CICA and the SCO, where we are discussing security issues. As two major countries in Asia, India and China should try to work together to evolve a new framework from these basic building blocks," Mukherjee added.

Moving over, palpably when India and China meet, there are bound to be substantial talks and discussions on the galloping economic ties between the two. And indeed, this held true to the Indian External Affairs Minister's visit as well.

Crucially, the trade target of $60 billion set by the two countries would be achieved well before 2010. Bilateral trade between the two countries has already risen to nearly $40 billion, thereby making China the largest trading partner of India.

Mukherjee inaugurated the Consulate General of India in Guangzhou city of Guangdong province. It was significant since it is in Guangdong, where China's first special economic zone (SEZ) was set up. "There is tremendous interest in India to learn from your experiences, including your remarkable success in developing the Special Economic Zones," Mukherjee said.

Apparently, the Guangdong province accounts for one-third of China's total foreign trade and runs at the forefront of the country's economic reforms. Moreover, China has earmarked six SEZs including the entire Hainan province.

Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua stated that the inauguration of the Consulate General of India would open a new chapter of friendly cooperation between Guangdong and India. Trade between the Province and India amounted to $5.9 billion in 2007, an increase of 55 per cent over the previous year.

At home, the Centre has been trying to convince critics of its SEZ policy and has met with little success on the same. The UPA government seems under tremendous pressure from the Left allies to amend its SEZ act and rules.

The Left parties have asked the government to learn from China's 20 years of experience with SEZs and have highlighted that these SEZs are owned by the government while rehabilitation package is given to displaced farmers including monetary compensation, provision for housing and employment. Furthermore, China has regulated the number of economic zones and set up these zones only on barren land and along coastal areas.

In all certainty, the border dispute dating back to the 1962 war still festers and mistrust between New Delhi and Beijing never seems too far from the exterior. India's proposal for the new security architecture in Asia also appears frail in the absence of a clear overview coupled with failing to define the aims and objectives of the same.

This is well in contrast to India's entry into the "quadrilateral initiative," a new strategic security combine in which it joins as a key member of the security triad of Australia, Japan and the US-an alliance that is being observed closely by Beijing.

In conclusion, the visit of the External Affairs Minister ended on an optimistic note with the economic convergence grabbing much spotlight although the long-standing boundary dispute still remains. What's more, India would always be keen to keep a close tab on China's march towards making a bid for regional primacy by virtue of its expanding economic and military clout in Asia and beyond.

(Courtesy: Central Chronicle, June 19, 2008)
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.

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Dr Monika Chansoria
Senior Fellow & Head of China-study Programme
Contact at: [email protected]

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