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President Pranab Mukherjee’s China Visit: Was It Really 'Fruitful'?

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  • June 10, 2016

    Indian President Pranab Mukherjee concluded his “fruitful and productive” four-day China visit on May 27, 2016. The visit could be said to have been divided into two parts, the first, in Guangzhou, highlighting the significance of business and cultural linkages and the second being the round table conference at Beijing to boost people-to-people interaction. The visit also covered discussions on regional as well as global issues, ranging from the economic relations between the two countries to terrorism and other security issues.

    During the roundtable of vice chancellors and presidents of universities of India and China, held at the prestigious Peking University in Beijing, Mukherjee listed eight ways of strengthening the relationships between the two countries, including “enhanced political communication”; increased collaboration between the civil societies on both sides; enhanced interaction between the youth of both nations through cultural exchanges, digital technology, and sports; and a similar approach toward global and developmental issues in order to build stronger cooperation at multilateral gatherings like the G20, East Asian Summit, BRICS, and others. Adding weight to his words, Mukherjee was accompanied by an academic delegation seeking to broaden their contacts with Chinese counterparts in order to facilitate joint research. The round table was unique — the first of its kind — and Mukherjee’s visit also saw the signing of ten MoUs on cooperation between academic institution.

    Regarding the economic ties between the two nations, Mukherjee quite explicitly spoke about the trade imbalance present between China and India. However, Mukherjee argued that there is great potential for economic and commercial cooperation between the two nations. While offering support to China’s “Going Global” strategy, also asked China to be a significant part of Indian developmental missions like “Digital India,” “Skill India,” “Smart Cities,” etc. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, promised “practical cooperation” in the development of new energy, railways, and industrial zones and even talked about offering space assistance.

    With Asia becoming an economic attraction, Mukherjee asserted that if both countries join hands they could rejuvenate an “Asian Century.” He said, “This will not be an easy task. Obstacles need to be resolved with fortitude. The two countries must persevere to realize this dream. They must join hands in a durable friendship.”

    Terrorism was another essential issue of discussion. Mukherjee affirmed the need for greater cooperation between India and China at the United Nations to combat terrorism, indirectly hinting at the Masood Azhar issue. Though China has raised its voice against India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, India asked for China’s support to intensify its civil nuclear capabilities.

    On the boundary issue, the president stated that, while talks on resolution of the boundary question have advanced under the special representative mechanism, it is more important for the two nations to maintain peace at the borders through upgraded border management.

    To strengthen tourism, China has agreed to allow more Indian pilgrims to visit Kailash Manasarovar in Tibet through the Nathu La pass.

    Interestingly, Mukherjee also pointed out on the constant support India offered for China becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In doing so, he obliquely hinted at a reciprocal support from China for India’s desire to become a permanent member of the UNSC.

    Mukherjee clearly laid out how the two countries together have to potential to resolve various issues in the ever-developing world. Just at Mukherjee stated, it’s natural for neighbors to have differences — the most major one being the boundary issue for India and China — but these differences should not hinder other areas of growth and advancement of the two nations.

    Frequent Talks, Stationary Relations

    The frequency of talks between the two nations have increased, particularly in the past two years. Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s visit to China in May 2015 was followed by the Border Defense Delegation in December 2015, which was led by Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda. This year, before Mukherjee’s visit, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met Chinese leaders at the 19th India-China Boundary talks and Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar was also seen to press China on clarifying Line of Actual Control (LAC) issues during his visit to China in April this year. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, President Xi Jinping, and Premier Li Keqiang have all visited India (in June 2014, September 2014, and November 2013 respectively).

    Keeping in mind the frequency of visits between India and China, we could hope for a powerful decision over the boundary question soon. Though India and China hold different stances on the border problem, making mediation difficult, resolving the LAC issue would be greatly and mutually beneficial.

    Yet despite how frequent the talks or meetings between the two nations have become, areas contention — particularly the border issue — continue to remain static. Yes, the border remains tranquil, but a quicker mechanism is needed to resolve the long-lasting and larger problem of an undecided border.

    India also needs to understand the diplomatic tactics of the Chinese. They do not believe in radical policy formulations and rather follow a very steady expansionist approach. For faster outcomes, the best that India can do is tackle the trust deficit faced by the two nations by engaging with China through different fields to improve and rebuild trust on both sides.

    The two countries will again meet at the G20 summit at Hangzhou, China in September and the BRICS summit in Goa, India this October. These two upcoming multilateral meetings will again give the two nations a chance to improve Sino-Indian relations through bilateral dialogue.

    Supriya Sharma is an East Asia Researcher at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, India.

    The article was originally published in The Diplomat