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PM’s Visit to China: A Case of Flawed Timing

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • October 25, 2013

    Prior to PM Manmohan Singh’s departure it was mentioned by official sources that his visit to China was rather unique; for after Nehru’s visit in 1954 it was the first time that the PMs of India and China had exchanged visits in the same year! But reality seems to be different for PM Manmohan Singh arrived in China on a three day visit on 22 October 2013; but so did the PM of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev [No.2 in the Russian hierarchy] as also the PM of Mongolia Norovyn Altankhuyag. The reference to Nehru’s visit was also rather odd, for Nehru was received at Beijing airport in 1954 by the then Chinese PM Zhou Enlai and they together drove in an open car cheered by a million Chinese lining the streets of Beijing. It is possible that protocol rules have changed over the years, but the fact remains that PM Manmohan Singh’s visit was not a stand- alone visit; but one clubbed together with other dignitaries. The foreign policy establishment in Delhi should have foreseen this. As the Chinese newspaper ‘The Global Times’ [22 October 2013] proclaimed ‘it seems a coincidence.’ Far from it; for it was a visible demonstration of how much importance the Chinese attached to the visit.

    The Chinese would be aware that there are about six months left in the life of the UPA-II government with general elections in India imminent. They would have also no doubt taken cognizance of various ‘surveys’ as well as soundings of the political scene that would indicate that it is entirely possible that there would be a change of government following the elections. The Chinese Embassy in Delhi would be seriously remiss if it did not report back to Beijing the internal scene in India. Even if the UPA were to come back to power, the picture of who would lead the government would only become clear after May 2014. Therefore the question that arises is why would the Chinese invest political capital in the last few months of a government that is very shortly completing its term and would be demitting office? And even if they took the risk, what is the guarantee that the next government would honour the understandings reached?

    There are four main issues of core interest to India. These are the continuing and un-interrupted flow of Chinese arms, including nuclear, to Pakistan. The second is the unresolved boundary issue, including the maintenance of peace and tranquility on the border pending a settlement, the third is the huge trade imbalance and the fourth the question of trans- river waters.

    To take the first issue, China is the main military weapons supplier to the Pakistan Army. According to SIPRI Nearly 55 per cent of China’s arms exports go to Pakistan. China’s arms exports world- wide rose by an unprecedented 162 per cent for the period 2008-2012 and China has replaced the UK as the fifth largest arms exporter in the world. The Chinese supply everything from fighter aircraft to missiles to naval vessels to Pakistan. China played a central role in helping Pakistan to become a nuclear weapons state. In keeping with this role, China is helping Pakistan to increase its nuclear energy output from 770 megawatts to 8000 megawatts by 2030. Additionally, China is helping Pakistan to fuel the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world.1 Failing to achieve what was done for India by the US, Pakistan has looked to China to fill the void and China in turn has given ample indication that it was ready to do so. The Chinese do not buy the thesis that nuclear co-operation cannot be extended to Pakistan on the same basis as India because India and Pakistan are ‘different states with different histories and therefore different needs.’ China stands for equivalence between India and Pakistan and has criticized the ‘discriminatory’ nature of the NSG waiver given to India and demanded that the same be given to Pakistan. There is no information in the public domain that China was receptive to PM Manmohan Singh’s concerns as regards the arms build-up by Pakistan.

    The resolution of the boundary issue is stalemated with no sign of any forward movement. At best the present agreement on the border, signed during the visit, is a further refinement of the agreements of 1993 and 1996 that seek to stabilize and maintain peace and stability in the border areas. Nevertheless it is a positive step forward.

    The trade imbalance has touched USD 40 billion in 2012-13. Despite what Chinese PM Li Keqiang promised during his visit to Delhi, it seems that both sides are bereft of any ideas on how to reduce this huge imbalance in any meaningful way. The flow of Chinese FDI into India is also meager; it is only US $ 282 million in the period April 2000 to July 2013. If the trade imbalance has to be reduced then we need to encourage Chinese businessmen and investors to visit India frequently and seek investment opportunities. But how can these visits be promoted, if the important liberalization of visas agreement has become hostage to political issues? The Chinese policy of stapling visas for residents of Arunachal Pradesh is a political act and it is not as a matter of visa policy. Therefore our response too should be political and not to kill trade and commerce by withholding the visa liberalization agreement.

    The Indian Ambassador to China was rather ecstatic in briefing Indian reporters over the trans-rivers agreement with China and the fact that we could now discuss with them not only seasonal flows, but also other issues. But spare a thought. We too are building dams on the tributaries of the Brahamaputra in Arunachal Pradesh. Does it now mean that we are ready to grant the same treatment to Bangladeshi requests, as the lower riparian state, that we demand of China as the upper riparian?

    Thus if little progress was anticipated during the PM’s visit given the timing of it; then the larger question assumes importance whether it was a wise move to commit our PM to visit China at near the end of the term of his government? Perhaps only time will tell if the move was sagacious.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. Bruce Reidel. “JFK Overshadowed,” National Interest.org.

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