Friday, December 16, 2011

India-China: Asian Giants Succeed in Tight Rope Walk

By Shastri Ramachandaran

Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - While the border dispute between two Asian giants, which led to the Sino-Indian war in 1962, has yet to be settled, two recent developments signify that neither India nor China wants occasional, but inevitable, irritants to scuttle bilateral talks and business-as-usual engagements.

One is the relatively lenient sentence of a Chinese court in Shenzhen in the case involving 22 diamond traders from Mumbai and Gujarat detained since January 2010 for smuggling and duty evasion. The court ordered 13 of them to be deported (meaning, let off with fines). The nine others were sentenced to between three and six years.

Yet Indian officials and families of the merchants are relieved because China is known for its extremely harsh sentences when it comes to financial offences involving foreigners. Just a day before the verdict on the Indian diamond smugglers, an Australian national was sentenced to 13 years on charges of embezzlement.

The second development, which was actually scheduled earlier, is India and China going ahead with their two-day defence dialogue in Delhi on December 8, 2011. The Chinese delegation was led by the deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army Ma Xiaotian. General Ma's visit for the fourth round of high-level talks on a range of sensitive defence and security issues shows that the two countries are determined not to let their differences become an obstacle to scheduled exchanges.

This may well be because of Delhi and Beijing recognising that a rift between them would only serve the interests of those opposed to their growing cooperation and trade. Clearly, the Asian giants do not want to let recent strains in their relationship – over the India-sponsored world Buddhist conclave and the consequent cancellation of boundary talks – to affect other tracks of engagement.

Although China backed out of the 15th round of border talks scheduled to be held in New Delhi on November 28-29 because of the Dalai Lama's participation in a World Buddhist Conference, now, it has reason to be pleased with the turn of events. (And, India has no reason to be displeased at the outcome of the diamond traders’ case).

Sensitive Relationship

In fact, Indian observers concede that Beijing has emerged in favourable light than New Delhi in the strains caused by the Buddhist convention. There is general agreement that, given the sensitive and complex relationship between the two countries, postponement of the 15th round of Indian-China boundary talks between Special Representatives Shivshankar Menon and Dai Bingguo was unfortunate and avoidable, for a number of reasons.

One, the boundary talks have always been held on schedule, and have never been put off. Two, after maintaining peace and tranquillity on the disputed border for so long, a new boundary mechanism had been agreed upon for New Delhi and Beijing to stay in direct contact regarding incidents on the Line of Actual Control. The mechanism can open up other avenues of cooperation.

Three, the decision on the boundary mechanism was part of the effort agreed upon by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao to end 2011 on an upbeat bilateral note.

The two leaders, known for their remarkable rapport, had ironed out a number of differences on the sidelines of the first BRICS Summit in Sanya (Hainan) in April 2011, involving leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Four, with China in for major political changes in 2012, this was to be the last round of boundary talks under the present leadership with Dai Bingguo as the special representative.

The Indian government was aware of all these. But once the Buddhist conference was scheduled, New Delhi could not have bowed to Beijing's demand and cancelled or postponed it; nor prevented the Dalai Lama’s participation. However, the government distanced itself from the affair and did not blow up the issue of China’s objections forcing it to defer the boundary talks.

'No' to Trilateral Pact against China

As if to ease the strains, soon after there was welcome news for China: India's rejection of an Australian proposal to join a trilateral pact with the U.S. At a time when the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies have stepped up efforts to contain China, India made it publicly clear that it will not get sucked into any security cooperation aimed at China.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd revealed that Canberra was working on a three-way economic and security pact with the US and India, and claimed that the Indian response "has really been quite positive." The very next day, the external affairs ministry trashed Rudd's claim, saying, "We are not aware of any such proposal."

India's defence cooperation with other countries is only on a bilateral basis and it is not keen on getting onto "multilateral security constructs" in the region. Those regional arrangements currently embraced by India are those under the UN or those like ASEAN regional forum.

India does not want to take sides in the rivalry between the U.S. and China in the Asia-Pacific region. And critically, India does not want to be part of any axis aimed at containing China in the region, when cooperation between the two countries can lead to win-win results for the two.

The message New Delhi is trying to send out is this: China and India may be competitors, but they have much to gain and it is to their mutual advantage to move cooperation forward. They have problems, but these cannot be resolved by adding an extra dimension involving other countries or regional pacts.

*The author, an independent political and foreign affairs commentator based in New Delhi, is a former senior editor and writer with Global Times and China Daily in Beijing. A version of this article appeared in DNA – Daily News and Analysis. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 15, 2011]

Picture: Gen Ma Xiaotian | Credit: Wikimedia Commons