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Hu Jintao's India Visit Boosts Sino-Indian Relations

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 30, 2006

    The Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to India signifies an important milestone in bilateral relations. The visit showed that there is a mutual willingness to keep the irritants aside and move forward. Both the powers of Asia have indeed placed greater importance on "stable relations" with each other in the coming days. This was clearly visible in Hu Jintao's "five-point proposals" for developing Sino-Indian relations. The rumours of India-China relations being affected by growing strategic relationship between India and US have been laid to rest for the moment.

    Hu Jintao's "Five-point proposals"

    President Hu's five points seek to increase political trust, business cooperation, cultural and social exchanges, and multilateral cooperation on the one hand and address the boundary issues on the other. In his interaction with the media, Hu Jintao made it clear that "working together to expand cooperation and create a bright future" was the primary task for both the countries.

    Currently, both India and China are conducting a joint feasibility study that is expected to be completed by October 2007. It will lay down the foundation for inter-regional trade. But such initiatives have been undertaken previously between the two countries. In fact, there have been many other issues affecting the pace of bilateral relationship in the past. For example, China's evolving policies towards India in terms of its own domestic priorities, its reactions to Indian aspirations in the subcontinent, and its concerns regarding the role played by other players in the region, i.e., United States, and China's strategic relationship with Pakistan. While relations between India and China have improved in recent years, New Delhi remains concerned about China's longstanding military and economic support to Pakistan.

    The Shadow of the Border Issue

    The question that strikes one most is to what extent Hu's five point proposals would make a difference to the future course of Sino-Indian relations? If one perceives this visit by the Chinese president as an important landmark in Sino-Indian relations, then it is useful to review the bilateral interactions particularly in terms of the impact they have on the long-running boundary dispute between the two countries. Putting it in another way, one can counter-argue that unresolved territorial disputes tend to inhibit full normalisation of bilateral relations. While both the countries agree to a "package settlement format through negotiation" to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution, progress remains slow on the specifics of the boundary issues even after eight rounds of talks.

    In fact, just before Hu Jintao's tour, the remark by the Chinese ambassador to India asserting Beijing's claims to the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh had sent shockwaves among majority of Indian strategic experts and policy advisors. This clearly highlighted the intractable nature of the border disputes and made it clear that the final resolution of the issue required not only courageous political decisions at the highest level in both the countries but also political skills to sell such a resolution to their respective domestic constituencies.

    If Hu's observation, during the course of this visit, that "we hope to turn China-India boundary into a bond of good neighbourliness and mutually beneficial cooperation", be any indicator, the two countries are hoping to benefit from the favourable political ambience created by growing bilateral trade and commerce. By arguing that trade liberalisation would take Sino-Indian ties to new levels, the Chinese president underscored the need for a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries. He also highlighted the need to increase border trade for greater economic cooperation.

    This line of thinking emphasises the point that there is an willingness on the part of the top leadership in China and India to take the relationship forward at the economic front and create the necessary conditions for a political solution to the boundary problem later.

    Emerging Dynamics

    Despite the temptation of many analysts in the West to characterise Sino-Indian relationship as one of strategic rivalry, there is a new dynamics that is emerging on the horizon now. For instance, China does not regard India as a rival; India also does not look at China in the old balance-of-power framework.

    It is quite significant that in spite of many pitfalls in the bilateral relations (including the boundary issue), both the countries have upgraded their diplomatic relations to the current level of "strategic comprehensive partnership for peace and prosperity". It was also clearly evident in the quick corrective measures taken by the Chinese government officials to play down the remarks of their envoy on Arunachal Pradesh in New Delhi. China recognises India as a rising power and views friendly relationship with India as an imperative for peace and economic development in the region, in line with its philosophy of Zhongguó hépíng juéqi or 'peaceful rise'.

    Future Ahead

    Many leading experts on Sino-Indian relations argue that the "dominant paradigm in which India-China relations are generally analysed is essentially one of the competitive power politics". However, looking at the emerging world order in terms of the developments especially since 9/11, the war on terror, the North Korean nuclear crisis and Hu Jintao's South Asia tour, Sino-Indian relations will depend heavily on three factors: first, the growth of Chinese and Indian economic and military capabilities; second, the interaction of their interests with those of the United States and Pakistan; third, the perception of both China and India towards each other.

    The year 2006 will surely be a landmark year in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship for many reasons. This year will be remembered as a "China-India Friendship Year". The year also witnessed signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Defence Cooperation, which is certainly a major step in bilateral relations.

    The skeptics from both sides have, however, hinted at the limitations of bilateral military ties because the links between the two militaries would remain limited in both scope and depth. Furthermore, there is a view that the India-US nuclear deal, China's continuing defence assistance to Pakistan, and the changing East Asian and South Asian strategic landscapes may retard the pace of their strategic relationship.

    However, looking at the developments that have taken place in 2006 and especially after Hu Jintao's trip, one can take a more optimistic view of the future Sino-Indian relations. There is a greater willingness and convergence of interest now than ever before to carry their bilateral relations to new heights.