x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tension high as China PM visits India

The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, is due to arrive in India tomorrow amid signs that strong economic ties might not be enough to overcome growing diplomatic and military tensions between the two neighbours.

Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh side-by-side at a meeting of regional leaders in Vietnam in October.
EPA
Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh side-by-side at a meeting of regional leaders in Vietnam in October. EPA

NEW DELHI // The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, is due to arrive in India tomorrow amid signs that strong economic ties might not be enough to overcome growing diplomatic and military tensions between the two neighbours.

Mr Wen will hold talks with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, during the three-day visit and oversee celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties. A number of deals on trade, renewable energy and infrastructure are expected.

"The visit aims to improve mutual trust and development co-operation with India. People shouldn't have too high expectations for the visit," said Hu Shisheng, an expert on China's relations with South Asia at the Institute of Contemporary International Relations.

This is a far cry from Mr Wen's last visit in April 2005 when the two countries, basking in their shared emergence as major powers of the 21st century, established a comprehensive strategic partnership and vowed to resolve the long-running border dispute which led them into a short but brutal war in 1962.

Five years on, and the economic agreements have borne fruit, with bilateral trade trebling and expected this year to surpass $60 billion (Dh220bn).

Other areas have seen much less progress. The 14th round of border negotiations ended last month with few signs that the two countries were any closer to a resolution.

"There appears little political will to engage in substantive dialogue on disputed issues," said Christian Le Miere, a China expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Relations are likely to remain fraught with historical animosity and mistrust."

India has been particularly concerned by China's intrusion into the Kashmir dispute. In 2009, China began issuing stapled - rather than stamped - visas to Indian Kashmiris, implying that it did not fully recognise Indian sovereignty. In August 2010, it refused entry to an Indian lieutenant-general because he commanded an area that included Jammu and Kashmir.

The Chinese military's repeated incursions into disputed border areas are seen by many in India as further evidence of a dangerous new aggression on China's part, which could be designed to mask problems at home.

"China's long list of aggressive actions in recent months is part of a deliberate attempt to promote hyper-nationalism among its middle classes in order to off-set the loss of the Communist Party's legitimacy," said Prem Shankar Jha, the author of Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India Dominate the West?.

"We have seen rising nationalism in China in the past two years," agreed Srikanth Kondapalli, the chairman of the Centre for East Asian Studies at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "China is increasingly determined to press its claims to territory at any cost. This is one reason the Indian government has elevated the threat perception over the past couple of years from low to medium level."

Others see China's assertiveness as a sign of strength rather than weakness.

"With the world's second largest economy and improving military capabilities, Beijing is emboldened in its diplomacy," said Mr Le Miere. "There is little evidence to suggest that at times of domestic crisis, China turns to a destabilising foreign policy.

"Having said that, increasing nationalism at home makes it more difficult for the Communist Party to act in a restrained fashion in times of crisis."

For its part, China worries about India's close ties with the US and resents the presence of the Dalai Lama in India.

Military build-up has also added to the fraught state of relations. China has spent millions on roads, railways and airports that give access to the border for its military. India has responded by shifting key missile assets to its north-east and raising new infantry mountain divisions that will eventually total over 80,000 troops.

The recent dip in relations appears to go against hopes that closer trade ties would blunt political disagreements.

"China shows us that political animosities can continue and do not necessarily cause problems for trade," said Mr Kondapalli. "China has three times more trade with Japan than it does with India despite all the animosities in that relationship."

"Trade ties increase the direct and opportunity cost of conflict," said Mr Le Miere. "But politics always trumps economics, so should policy dictate that conflict is necessary no matter what the cost, there is little trade ties can do to prevent a slide to war."

Amid these tensions, few expect any fireworks during this week's visit. It is hoped that a quiet and steady diplomacy will remind both sides how far they have come.

"We shouldn't forget that the relationship was far worse in the past," said TCA Rangachari, a retired Indian diplomat.

 

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