Premier Wen Jiabao’s India Visit: A Brief Review

By Bhaskar Roy

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao embarked on his India tour (Dec. 15-17) the intense political issues in China tempered the pitch of his approach and the outcome of his visit. The postures, gestures and statements and speeches of Mr. Wen, which made every effort to present a welcome public face, may not be the entire truth.

China’s core foreign policy and the role that it envisages to play in global affairs has been developing from the 1950s under Mao Zedong. It starts with avenging the humiliation imposed on China by Western colonial powers and Japan; establish hegemony over Asia – a unipolar Asia with China as the pole; create a multipolar world order; with the US, the Soviet Union and China as the three poles; post Soviet Union it was a bipolar world order with the USA and China as the two poles, but at a time of China’s choosing and not that of America’s.

Perhaps, before many Indians realized, the Chinese saw India growing as an important economic pole like the European Union (EU). China’s agenda in the 21st century hurried to try and divide the world between the US and China. This was the uncharacteristic haste displayed by the current Chinese leaders compared to the cautious steps their predecessors preferred.

With their sights firmly set, the Chinese leadership keep on making tactical adjustments as and when circumstances compel. Currently, China is under serious internal and external pressure, and Beijing has no option to make tactical retreat and wait for this huge wave to pass. When a huge wave comes it is always advisable to duck under, as Chinese saying goes.

In the past, there were mainly two factions in China’s leadership and they come into conflict or powers struggles. In the run up to change of leadership, which is going to take place in 2012, today, there are multiple interest sections/factions who are vying for power. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has emerged as a new faction.

The Communist Party appears to be perceiving a major threat to its hold over the nation. Premier Wen Jiabao himself instigated a serious debate a few months ago supporting democracy and freedom of speech if China was to retain and consolidate its economic achievement. In virulently opposing Nobel Peace prize to jailed pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, the party and government lost substantially both internally and externally. There are other internal problems, also.

Externally, China’s refusal to hold North Korea responsible for its military belligerence in the region has seriously questioned China’s credibility. Its belligerent stand on territorial issues, some of which are based on fictitious historical claims raised alarm in Japan and South East Asia.

In the context of India, apart from the lingering border or boundary issue, re- calibration of its Kashmir policy, enraged India.

Therefore, Premier Wen came to India with the brief for very good public relations programmes and the realization that China may have chosen a wrong time to vitiate relations with India on Kashmir.

Premier Wen came with a 200 member trade delegation and the effect was to display how trade between the two countries was racing ahead. Projections are $60 billion by the end of 2010, and $100 billion by 2015. But statistics can lie. The trade is highly in China’s favour. Indian companies have faced the glass wall where China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are concerned, and the license to get through this glass wall depends on Beijing’s political decisions, and not economic rules. The SOEs are China’s largest enterprises and India does not enjoy the political trust to enter their hallowed premises. Indian exports of pharmaceuticals to China remain face road blocks. These are China’s strategic enterprises in more ways than one.

Indian investment in China has crossed $ 800 million to China’s pittance of investment in India. Basically, China does not want to put money in India, but extract money with deals, because FDI in India’s long term projects will help India’s economy. Indian exports of pharmaceuticals remain blocked.

China’s exports to India are of the lowest category, something known in China as “shoddy goods” which have very little market inside China let alone in developed countries. Indian traders are also to blame. China’s economic policy towards India has been (i) sell, and (ii) enter into strategic sectors. Premier Wen promised greater access to Indian goods and business. Time will tell.

It was interesting to note that Premier Wen Jiabao raised the issue of China issuing stapled visas to Indian Kashmiris, saying China was seized about Indian concerns. Wen Jiabao appears to have indicated China had made a mistake on the stapled visa issue, but needed to withdraw quietly. The Indian government wisely did not insist on a mention of this issue in the joint statement. But China’s next step needs to be kept under watch. How will official talks between the two countries resolve the issue? What will China ask in return?

It was not expected that China would give a clear support to India’s membership of an expanded UNSC with veto power, and that did not happen. When, according to WikiLeaks, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described 2009 India, Japan, Brazil and Germany as self appointed front runners for the expanded UNSC seats, there is no prize for guessing that a tacit understanding had been reached between Washington and Beijing that it was not in the interest of either country to let the cosy Perm-5 expanded. Has the US changed its position in 2010 after President Obama’s visit to India? Or will it again take a different position in 2011 or 2012? UN reforms is a long way off, but affirmation of four out of the five permanent members to India’s quest is a huge message to many countries especially in the neighbourhood. It recognizes India’s position at the high table of international diplomacy and power standing. China’s problem is not merely India’s quest for the high table, but also that of Japan. If the US puts its shoulder to Japan, all including China will fall in line.

China’s recognition in the Joint Statement- the need to implement all relevant UN resolutions on terrorism especially UNSC resolutions 1267, 1373, 1540 and 1624 must be viewed in the larger aspect of Uighur Muslim separatist agitation in its Xinjiang – Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Its statements and action, regarding other terrorist organizations have been muted or hands off. Its policy on terrorism supports Pakistan’s policy.

China has established relations with Pakistani Islamic Parties like the JUI (F), and has an enduring relationship with the Afghan Taliban from the days of the Afghan war against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Relations with Pakistan’s Islamic groups is to stop their support to Uighurs, which it appears to have achieved. Pakistan and Pakistan’s China friendly Islamists was the main reason for Wen Jiabao declining to include Mumbai terrorist attack or 26/11, in the India-China Joint Statement. China’s counter-terrorism policy is unique. It is an extension of state craft and sub-terranean diplomacy.

Of course, it is essential to improve people-to-people relations, learning Chinese by the young Indians, upgrading cultural relations among others. India and China are two large countries with a 4000 km. common borders with an ancient history of people-to-people contacts, but today the general people on both sides depend on their understanding of each other through either state propaganda on one side and an independent media with their own views on the other.

China’s India policy must be examined on a much larger canvas than only Pakistan centric. At the same time, it must be recognized that Pakistan is the jewel in China’s crown, and will not take any action that make Pakistan even slightly uncomfortable. During the cold war era China saw an Indian-Soviet Union alliance against Beijing. After the cold war China closely followed readjustment in India’s foreign policy which tended to lean towards the US. One of the psychological warfare instruments used very effectively by China was to deliberately “ignore” India as a country of no consequences, a demoralised India after the 1962 war which would never even conceive of even standing up to China, and a bedraggled hegemon threatening the smaller countries of the region. The 1971 breakup in Pakistan was held up as an example.

The campaign was very effective. Most lndian policy makers and strategists swallowed it. This still lingers in many minds. Funnily, the Chinese began to accept India’s relevance and potential before Indians did. Two specific events that impacted China were India’s economic liberalization, and the 1998 nuclear tests against international opinion and the determination to go ahead with its policies even alone.

What confirmed China’s suspicion of growing India-US relations were the US turn of policy towards India’s nuclear strategy, and US support to Nuclear Supplier Groups (NSG) acceptance of India as nuclear trading power. China used every lever at its disposal to fight both issues, but lost. China blamed the US for bringing India into the nuclear club “through the back door”. Beijing may have finally reconciled with these developments, but unlikely to forget them in terms of future regional and global issues. Having pegged its global ambition and overall power and influence to that of the US, the large canvas obviously is America. Therefore, India’s closer co-operation with the US in defence, high technology exchanges, politics and diplomacy has led to Beijing’s perception that India may become a co-operative partner to the US in encircling and restricting China strategically and economically. These issues have been subjects of many recent Chinese commentaries.

Although for decades China accepted US presence in the Asia Pacific region to balance the Soviet Union/Russia, and moderate Japan, with its new power it wants to US to leave this region to China. They are, therefore, concerned with USA’s resurgence of interest in the region mainly spear headed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. China sees a rising India as a new entrant in the large American shadow across Asia and more. Hence, China considers its South West borders as potentially threatened with perceived growing US influence in India.

China is hoping India will not become an American ally in Asia to counter China. Recent commentaries in the Chinese official media in the run up to Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India, which gives us glimpses into Chinese official thinking, suggesting they are still looking for clues. These commentaries, while mildly reminding India that an anti-China policy would be a negative approach, repeatedly said that India always had an independent foreign policy and hoped that this policy would continue. These commentaries also suggested that India’s future lay with China and not the West.

Such views and examinations by Chinese strategic experts should be appreciated in India, and encouraged. This is one of the many ways to generate trust between the two sides, and dismiss Chinese Ambassador Zheng Yang’s cold war and unhelpful public statement that China-India relations were “very fragile”. If the Chinese ambassador in India makes such public statements it does not help building trust. Diplomacy has a public face and a private face. Ambassador Zhang deserves to be pulled up by Premier Wen Jiabao. Compare this to the positive public statements made by Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao.

Premier Wen Jiabao came to India for a first hand study of Indian thinking on China, and the real platform of India-US relationship in the context of China. He would have found from his Indian interlocutors from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh downwards that China’s concerns about India were unfounded. At the same time he would have learnt that India prizes its independent foreign policy but, at the same time, is not amused by China’s policies on Kashmir and strategic arming of Pakistan directed against India. India is not concerned by Premier Wen’s visit to Pakistan from India – they have strong strategic relationship. But if that is pointed at India as the China-Pak relations were originally scripted for and still continuing, then it is a serious concern for New Delhi. It is time that China reviewed its foreign policy towards India if the two countries are to raise the level of their relationship.

(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at [email protected])

SAAG

SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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