Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 3-day (Oct 21-23, 2013) tour to Beijing marked the first time in sixty years that the Indian and Chinese Prime Ministers exchanged visits within a year. As seasoning for the event the Chinese threw in invitations to meals by Xi Jinping and former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the importance of which was sought to be exaggerated by diplomats. These could not, however, dispel the shadow cast on bilateral relations by China’s unusually protracted intrusions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh sectors just months earlier. As anticipated the visit was high on hospitality but short on tangibles.
During his sojourn in Beijing, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and the Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC), Zhang Dejiang. He also addressed the Central Party School in Beijing, which is the crucible for training select upward-mobile Party cadres.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip to the US earlier this September, when an important agreement on co-production of defence equipment and transfer of defence technology was signed, was one backdrop for the visit. Officers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had specifically taken note of the India-US Joint Declaration on Defence and identified use of the term "closest partners" to describe the India-US bilateral relationship as indicative of the growing India-US ties. They particularly observed that it provided for technology transfer, co-development and co-production of defence equipment. Note was taken of India’s decision to participate for the first time in the world’s largest US-led multilateral military exercises, the ‘2014 Rim of the Pacific Exercise’, in Hawaii.
Beijing’s continuing suspicion and critical view of the US was separately revealed in a commentary published in the official news-agency ‘Xinhua’, on 13 October 2013. The Xinhua commentary called for a “befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world”. Interestingly, it was published only in English and only in Xinhua.
In an apparent bid to build a positive atmosphere for the visit, the Liberation Army Daily published an interestingly-worded article by Sun Peisong, President of the Jiangsu Lianyungang Institute of Development. Published on October 22, the article said China and India are trying to restore bilateral relations to a “long-standing condition of stability.” It accused the Indian media of always regarding China as India’s “regional opponent”. Dismissing this description, the author said “China has been taking care of India’s concerns: even though the Western countries have multiple times reminded China to take part in the NATO’s military operations in Afghanistan, China didn’t do that. One of the major reasons is that Afghanistan is located in the flank of India. Once China sends troops there, it’ll make India feel contained. China’s military deployment in Tibet Autonomous Region is to a large degree out of an overall consideration instead of being leveled against India. That is the reason why China’s heavy artillery, tanks, mid- and short-range tactical missiles are not forwardly deployed. When China launched the great-scale project of diverting water from the south to the north, China didn’t use the abundant water resources of the Yarlung Zangbo River to supply the north. Besides, China was the last among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to dispatch naval taskforce to the India Ocean to fight against piracy”. Describing the border conflict in 1962 as “just a little “episode” in the China-India friendship for thousands of years”, it added that “both parties have no reason to let the past history obstruct the future path”. It concluded that “as long as China and India are not enemies to each other, Asia is safe from big turbulence. China-India friendship is the basis for the new order in the future of Asia”.
The Tibet issue, according to one official, was not raised during the three days of meetings at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing, however, China’s State Council timed the release of its eleventh White Paper on Tibet for barely a few hours before the Indian Prime Minister’s arrival in Beijing on October 21, 2013.
The 6-chapter White Paper, which is a meticulous compilation of the economic development in Tibet since its take-over by Communist Chinese troops, devoted an entire, albeit brief, paragraph to castigating the Dalai Lama and implied that he was engaged in activities aimed at China while in India. The White Paper charged that “the 14th Dalai Lama and his clique in exile are conducting separatist activities for a long time to sabotage the development and stability of Tibet. After the failure of their armed rebellion in 1959, they fled abroad and began to harass China’s borders for years.” It asserted that the “so-called” concepts of “Greater Tibet” and “a high degree of autonomy” are against China’s actual conditions and violate its Constitution and laws. It said “their true aim is to overthrow the socialist system and system of regional ethnic autonomy that have ensured the development and progress of Tibet.”
The White Paper added that there “are some others in the world who intentionally distort the past and present of Tibet due to their ideological bias or out of consideration for their self-interests. They created a Shangri-La myth, wishing to keep Tibet in a backward primitive state forever.”
For the third consecutive time, in joint statements issued after meetings between Chinese Premiers and their Indian counterparts, the routine ritual statement recognising Tibet as an inalienable part of China was not included. Such mention was omitted during the visits to India of Chinese Premiers Wen Jiabao (2011) and Li Keqiang (2013).
There was limited, but apparent, forward movement on the border issue evidenced by inclusion in the Joint Statement of the observation that: “peace and tranquility on the India-China border was recognized as an important guarantor for the development and continued growth of bilateral relations”. The statement indirectly pointed to the growing incidence of border intrusions by China and negative reactions it was provoking.
The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) was described in paragraph 5 of the Joint Statement as intended to “strengthen maintenance of stability on the border”. It was clubbed with the agreements signed earlier in 1993, 1996 and 2005 and portrayed as merely another confidence-building measure. There was no reference to ensuring the current status quo of border defences and neither was there mention of any limits on patrolling by either side.
However, Article II (i) of the BDCA, which provides for the exchange of information, “including information about military exercises, aircrafts, demolition operations and unmarked mines-and take consequent measures conducive to the maintenance of peace, stability and tranquility along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas”, raises some concerns. The wording suggests that advance intimation would require to be given of construction activity as well as aircraft operations near the LAC, which could open the window for objections that such activity was occurring in territory the ownership of which was under dispute. Recent occurrences in Ladakh substantiate such concern.
Another new feature was in Article VI, which provided that “the two sides agree that they shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas”. The wording in this Article leaves ambiguous the manner of responding to an intruding patrol.
Indications were available earlier that the PLA appeared to have distanced itself from the BDCA, with its officers saying that its signing was a “political” decision based on the briefing given to the Politburo by State Councillor Yang Jiechi. The PLA’s stance could have implications.
Article 7 of the Joint Statement, which dealt with river management issues, made no mention of the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) giving little cause for comfort on the issue of the river’s diversion. Mentioning strengthened cooperation it said there could be an “exchange of views on other issues of mutual interest”. China had earlier hinted at its position on diversion of the Brahmaputra through an article by a researcher in the government-owned think-tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which recommended that China ignore India’s protests and go ahead with the project to divert the river.
The economic agenda saw mixed results. While there was no progress on the issue of a Free Trade Agreement or, as the Chinese refer to it, the Regional Trade Agreement, there seemed to have been some progress regarding the Special Economic Zones and some incremental progress on the so-called Southern Silk Route, or BCIM Economic Corridor. The latter proposal, which is being ardently pursued by China and its supporters in India, especially needs to be carefully studied. Its implementation without adequate preparation will threaten the fragile economy of India’s north-eastern states and at once cause India’s approximately US$ 39 billion trade deficit with China to burgeon while simultaneously opening the way for hundreds of Chinese workers to enter the country.
The Indian Prime Minister’s vis
it was essentially a diplomatic overture to signal that India was keen on peace and tranquility along the borders and was not teaming up with the US against China. It also sought to convey that border intrusions would undercut the basis for building relations and a hint of India’s ire was its failure to reiterate that Tibet is a part of China. China’s leaders sought to similarly convey a message of their interest in peaceful borders, accompanied by interest in economic interaction. There was, however, little forward movement on key, substantive issues
The views expressed are personal.
This series is published by IPCS in collaboration with the Chennai Centre for China Studies (CCCS)