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Sino-Indian relations 2011: A Mixed Bag of Highs and Lows

Dr. R. N. Das is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 30, 2011

    Like in preceding years, the roller coaster Sino-Indian relations witnessed their share of highs and lows. True, there was camaraderie and bonhomie between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Hu Jintao when they met on the margins of the BRICS Summit in Sanya in April, but this came after the episode of the stapled visa issue which had cast a shadow on the bilateral relationship and impelled India to keep in hold the defence exchange between the two countries. China on this occasion had issued proper visas to journalists from Jammu and Kashmir who accompanied the Prime Minister. The Sanya meeting created a positive vibe between the two leaders and gave a further impetus to bilateral relations. In particular, the two leaders agreed to set up a joint mechanism on coordination and consultation on border affairs, resume senior level defence exchanges, initiate a high level economic dialogue and find an amicable solution to the vexed stapled visa issue. Subsequently, defence exchanges were resumed with the visit of Maj. Gen. Gurmeet Singh of the Rashtriya Rifles to China from June 19 to 24. This positive development was followed by the first economic and strategic dialogue (E&SD) between the two countries in Beijing in September.

    As part of its charm offensive, China also celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, whose visit to China in 1914 had a very good impact on Sino-Indian relations. Yet another goodwill gesture by China was the honour bestowed upon the 93-year-old renowned Indian Yoga exponent BKS Iyenger, who enjoys an iconic status for introducing spiritual discipline in China, by releasing four commemorative stamps in June.

    As part of its public diplomacy exercise, China invited 500 Indian youth, who met Premier Wen Jiabao in the Great Hall of People on September 23. The youth delegation was led by India’s Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Ajay Maken. Premier Wen not only mingled with the visiting Indian youth, but also charmed them when he put on a Rajasthani turban and reached out to Mr. Maken to convey his personal regards to the Indian Prime Minister. This gesture assumed significance coming as it did in the backdrop of the spat over ONGC Videsh’s foray into the South China Sea.

    Beijing also played host to a number of important political leaders from India cutting across party lines, including BJP leader Nitin Gadkari, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, CPM leader Sitaram Yechury and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. In his meetings with Chinese leaders like Ai Ping, the Chinese Vice-Minister in the International Department of the Communist Party of China, and senior Communist Party leader Li Changchun, Gadkari reportedly discussed all important issues including China’s infrastructural projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the construction of dams on the Brahmaputra. After his trip Nitish Kumar remarked that in China he saw a new model of development and a friend, and advocated closer bilateral ties between the two Asian giants. Here, it is worth nothing that in Nalanda an international university is coming up with partial financial support from China. Sitaram Yechury held talks with senior CPC leaders including China’s top diplomat and State Councillor Dai Bingguo; Dai remarked that China wanted to increase mutual trust with India and take bilateral ties forward from a long term strategic standpoint. Narendra Modi was similarly impressed with his visit to China and he invited Chinese businessman to invest in Gujarat. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan also led a 28-member delegation to the World Economic Forum (WEF) held at Dalian in September.

    ONGC Videsh’s foray into the South China Sea, where the Indian public sector corporation has been engaged since 1988, generated some strain in the relationship between the two countries, particularly in the backdrop of the US’s return to the Asia-Pacific. India and Vietnam had signed a deal to explore oil in the disputed South China Sea during the Vietnamese President’s India visit in the second half of October. Reacting strongly to this deal, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, ‘We do not hope to see out side forces involved in the South China Sea dispute and do not want to see foreign companies engage in activities that will undermine China’s sovereignty and interest.’ Though both Beijing and New Delhi downplayed the issue, there were unsavoury comments from some sections of the Chinese media. The Indian media also gave provocative headlines in its reports. These should have been avoided given the sensitive nature of the relationship between the two countries. Needless to mention, such reports in the media tend to harden people’s attitude and in turn shapes the perceptions of political leaders as well. No wonder, there was a volley of questions on China in both Houses of Parliament during the just concluded Session.

    India and China, however, tried their best to overcome the South China Sea muddle and in a statesman like spirit Dr. Manmohan Singh reiterated his oft-quoted statement in Bali that there was enough space for both India and China to flourish. To that the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao responded thus: ‘It is important for our two countries, the most populous in the world, to achieve modernisation and work hand in hand.’ He added, ‘that he was ‘fully confident that that kind of world will arrive.’

    Yet another issue that strained the bilateral relationship was the postponement of talks between the Special Representatives of the two countries scheduled for November 28 and 29 on the ground that it clashed with the international Buddhist congregation addressed by the Dalai Lama. As India did not concede to the Chinese demand to cancel the conclave, the two countries mutually decided to defer the talks for a future date. The Buddhist conclave was held as scheduled and was addressed by Dalai Lama. The conclave was graced by Indian dignitaries at the appropriate level, albeit purely in their social and private capacities as is the normal practice. This was yet another instance that was adroitly handled by the two countries. China has to reckon with India as an important country in the comity of nations and as a brethren Asian country on equal footing and equal reciprocity.

    One positive development in the bilateral relationship was cooperation at the Durban Conference on climate change held on December 5. Denying rumours that China had moved away from India’s position on the Kyoto protocol and a new global deal, Xie Zhenhua, Vice Chairman of National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and head of the Chinese delegation in Durban said, ‘We accept a legally binding arrangement with five pre conditions post-2020. As long as principles of common but differentiated responsibility and equity are ensured, individual capability is the basis of a new deal.’

    The high point of the India-China relationship during the year was the resumption of the Defence Dialogue, which was held on December 9. The last such dialogue was held in January 2010. For the latest round of talks, the Indian side was led by Defence Secretary Shashikant Sharma and the Chinese side by Gen. Ma Xiaotian. The talks led to some positive outcomes with both sides agreeing to the training of defence officers in the other’s defence colleges and the resumption of joint military exercises as per the Memorandum of Understanding in this respect.

    The year gone by witnessed India’s firm responses to bilateral issues and China’s appreciation of the Indian position, thus providing a positive momentum to India-China relations. 2012 may open with some forward movement with the meeting of the Special Representatives some time in January. That will be followed by the BRICS Summit in New Delhi in March, in which President Hu Jintao is slated to participate.