So, a new leadership has taken over the administration in China. With the retirement of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, both completing their ten-year term, Xi Jinping, 59, has taken over as President from Hu and Li Keqiang as Premier, from Wen. One understands that within hours of being elected as China’s new Premier, Li Keqiang called up Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, saying he was looking forward to strengthening bilateral relations with India and now, President Xi has invited Manmohan Singh for an official visit to Beijing.
Are we in for better Sino-Indian relations, following a new administrative set-up in China, or are we only to go through the same procedure of flattering words and perplexing actions? It is worth remembering that Dr Singh has met both Jintao and Wen Jiabao 14 times in the last few years, but China is planning to go ahead with constructing three dams across upstream Brahmaputra, even as work has begun at Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexn, with India reduced to a mere looker on. Some cooperative endeavour, that.
Xi has has been quick to propose his newly formulated ‘Panchsheel’ to improve Sino-Indian relations and they look good on paper. They are: First, to maintain strategic communication and keep bilateral relations on the right track, second, for both countries to harness each other’s comparative strengths and expand win-win cooperation in infrastructure, mutual investment and other areas, third, to strengthen cultural ties and constantly increase mutual understanding and friendship between the two peoples, fourth, to expand coordination and collaboration in multi-lateral affairs and jointly safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries and tackle global challenges and the fifth, to accommodate each other’s core concerns and properly handle problems and differences.
Anybody will realise that it is the fifth proposal that, in the end, which really matters. It is worth remembering that in the matter of territorial disputes, India and China have held 15 rounds of talks in the past, without coming to any notable agreements. According to Keqiang, China has no ambition to seek hegemony. And why? As he put it: “Even if China becomes stronger in the modern period, we will not seek hegemony because we have learnt from our own bitter experience that one should not impose on others what he himself does not desire. It is an article of faith for us”.
Considering what has happened in the past, with the slogan Hindi Chini bhai bhai ending with Hindi Chini Bye Bye, skepticism in India, both among the ruling classes and among the general public is understandable. The old saying: Once bitten, twice shy holds good. To begin with, will China openly support India’s claim to Permanent Membership of the Security Council? Its refusal to give a visa to an Indian Army officer because he had served in Jammu and Kashmir is too shocking to be easily forgotten. China’s stand on Arunachal Pradesh is also rankling. If Li sounds overtly friendly, his assertion that, in the end, China’s unshakable commitment is to safeguard its “own sovereignty,” spills the beans. Where does its “sovereignty” begin – and where does it end? What is significant is that China seems to sound more than friendly not only to India, but to Russia as well, the latter having noticeably been seen in the past as a “wary partner.” Russia has reason to be skeptical of China, with its large population and growing economic strength. But then Xi, who visited Moscow on his first trip abroad as China’s top leader, has been seen to be more than cooperative. China has signed some 35 agreements with Russia on a wide range of issues, like missile defence. More importantly, China has agreed to give Russia a $ 2 billion loan, to be repaid in oil after 25 years. China’s greed for oil and natural gas is endless and Russia happens to be the right source for these two particular commodities. Apart from that, a more assessed relationship could provide a stronger voice in global affairs for both, in counter-balancing western influence.
The proposed BRICS Development Bank is a reflection of the current thinking in Moscow and Beijing, which is to undermine the role of the US-controlled World Bank. China’s new move towards Russia and India is also not without inner compulsions. Both Xi and Li are currently facing internal pressures, thanks to an aging population, vast wealth disparities, rural revolt, raging corruption and just as importantly, a face-off with Tokyo over the Senkaku disputed islands and friction in the South and the South East China Sea with ASEAN powers. To achieve what Xi calls “great renaissance,” China has to show high statesmanship and commitment of peaceful resolution to all conflicts, internal and external. And this is where closer and friendlier ties with India and Russia become a must for China.
A wise India will use China’s professed desire to have closer and a more purposeful relationship with it, with deserving statesmanship. As the media has noted, if Chinese PLA Deputy Chief of General Staff, Qi Jiango’s meeting with India’s Defence Minister AK Antony on March 22 is any indication, Beijing seems really serious about avoiding any accident on the Sino-Indian border. There must be more such talks. The past need not be forgotten, but this must not be held hostage to bettering tomorrow’s fortunes. What is worrisome is that after posting impressive growth in the past few years, India-China bilateral trade has declined by 10.1 per cent, to $66.47 billion last year, largely because of the decline of iron ore export.
China is treating India like a colonial country, exporting more than importing, with India suffering from a substantial trade deficit, which is unacceptable. China is hesitant to open much on the IT and pharmaceutical fronts, despite high voltage campaigns by India. It wants cheap iron ore, which India should refuse to part with under any circumstances. It is a precious commodity, far too precious than is currently realised.
The potential to raise the bilateral annual trade to $100 billion is there, but China must open its doors perforce to manufacture goods from India. According to Robert Lawrence Kuhn, business and political adviser to Xi, what can help is for both India and China to work together in third party regions like Africa, Latin America, West Asia and Eastern Europe. That is something to think over.