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PM Manmohan Singh Leaves China with some Thoughts

Paper No. 5589                                              Dated 01-Nov-2013

By Bhaskar Roy

With Indian general elections some six months away Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s China visit (Oct. 22-24) is seen as his last in his capacity as prime minister of India. His foreign visits in the last one month suggested a somewhat different approach which one wished had come earlier.

In the US for the UN General Assembly annual session he described Pakistan as the epicenter of terrorism. Earlier, meeting US President Barack Obama in Washington he made it clear that while the US needed Pakistan for other reasons, it also had the responsibility of putting pressure on Islamabad against Pak sponsored terrorism against India. This persuaded President Obama to take up the matter with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, including demanding to see a real forward movement in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack.

The majority opinion in India was against Dr. Singh’s meeting with Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the UNGA in New York because of continuous provocation from the Pak army and Pak based terrorists. But he took a calculated risk and met Mr. Sharif to convey his frustration with Pakistan one last time.

In Russia (Oct. 20-22) for a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev, Prime Minister Singh tried to rekindle the old Indo-Soviet relationship recounting the very important support in defence industries, heavy industries and political level that India received from Moscow. The Japanese emperor Hirohito is scheduled to be in New Delhi in December, followed by Japanese Prime minister Abe in January.

Therefore, the China visit in between is being seen by foreign observers as connected in a series of foreign policy initiatives commensurate with India’s rising stature. It is not only the Indian prime minister was visiting capitals to meet leaders. Foreign leaders are also coming to the Indian capital, starting with the new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s first foreign trip abroad in May this year.

After assessing Prime Minister Singh’s visit and its impact, the official Chinese English daily, the China Daily (Oct. 30) commented that the visit was by any standard a “significant and fruitful one”. Earlier, addressing (Oct. 24) the central party school of the Chinese Communist Party’s central Committee in Beijing, Dr. Singh said that the two countries should show determination to become partners, that should be defined by cooperation and not by confrontation; but he cautioned that “it will not be easy, but we must not spare any effort”.

In his speech Dr. Singh also made it clear that India and China cannot be contained, nor should the two seek to contain others. He also allayed Chinese suspicion on India-US and India-Japan partnership which were not meant to contain China, but were in India’s economic interests, needs and aspirations.

This far the prime minister’s message was straight and true. China should not and cannot question India’s relations with other countries. The Chinese would have got the message that India was alive to their activities surrounding India. Dr. Singh also mentioned China’s decision to supply two more nuclear reactors to Pakistan, and India’s concerns, in bilateral talks.

The issue of China issuing stapled visas to two Indian archers from Arunanchal Pradesh was mentioned by Dr. Singh during the talk. He added that such actions had a negative impact on the Indian people and made improvement of relations difficult.

The joint statement issued (Oct. 23) by premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh briefly rounded up the important aspects of the visit, agreements signed and prospective cooperation.

Two important issues which came up for mention in the joint statement were examination of a bilateral Regional Trade Agreement (RTA), and the ongoing discussions on BCIN (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) Economic Corridor.

On the RTA, both sides have to spell out their minds. It is a complicated proposal especially being a bilateral subject with a somewhat expanded region involving other countries. Potential for conflict is high.   

The BCIM has implicit strategic consideration for all sides concerned. Basically, it would be an overland trade route from China through parts of Myanmar, India’s north-east, and eastern Bangladesh to the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. It is ideal for China after Yangon canceled the road-cum water way from China’s Kunming to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar. The Chinese refused to have their exports and imports checked by the Myanmar customs authorities. Till now, Myanmar has not shown any keenness on the BCIM.

For Bangladesh, the BCIM will be a good opportunity for collection of revenue and trade. For India, it could give access to Bangladesh and to the Sea. But there would be hardly any potential for Indian exports to China. Cheap Chinese goods will flood the north-east markets and kill local manufacturing. There is also a security aspect, given known close linkages of Indian insurgent groups of the north-east like the Assamese ULFA and the Naga NSCN (I/M) among others with China. ULFA’s commander-in-Chief, Paresh Barua is reportedly located between Yunan province and jungles of adjacent Myanmar.

The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), as expected, was the main takeaway for Prime Minister Singh from China. It includes further confidence building measures and avenues to diffuse untoward situations along the India-China border, in addition to the existing arrangement. But again, all depends on the intention and will of the two parties. Nothing in the BDCA prevents a face off like the Depsung incident earlier this year. Lack of clarity of the LAC in some places can always be manipulated by the Chinese to create tensions and put pressure if they want to.

For the Chinese, the time is not propitious to provoke any serious problems with India along the border. They have their own problems with Japan, South China Sea, Taiwan and the US Pivot to Asia. Many Chinese experts feel that on top of all these challenges it would be injudicious to push India into the arms of the US-Japanese military alliance.

Unlike on recent occasions, there was no indication of a desire for an early settlement of the border issue from the Chinese side. This is good because the farce is avoided.     

At the same time, the issue of stapled visas to residents of Arunanchal Pradesh remains a stalemate, and most likely would be resolved along with the boundary issue.

The Chinese sold a dummy to India on the MOU on strengthening cooperation on Trans-border Rivers. They have only agreed to share hydrological data on Brahmaputra flow to four months from the existing two months. There will be no visits by Indian experts to dams being built by China which they call run of the river hydroelectric projects. The dams built by China on the Mekong River which also emanates from China have had a disastrous effect on the lower riparian countries.

Interestingly, an article in the official Global Times (Oct. 07) said India has been unnecessarily critical of China on the Brahmaputra waters, while China tried to build a win-win situation. It also alleged India was planning to build reservoirs and canal systems to divert water to regions short of water in total disregard to the interests of Bangladesh. This can be seen as a veiled warning from Beijing that it can encourage Dhaka to loudly raise water issues with India.  

As regards the other agreements, there should be no problem with China wanting to enter the infrastructure sector in India that is, roads and bridges without electronic controls. Ports, airports, railway communication and other information technology sectors are closely associated with India’s security and should be a strict no-entry. Apart from the US and the UK, Australia has also stalled Chinese telecom company Huawei from entering the broadband sector. Unfortunately, the Indian private sector has pushed the government to open access to these Chinese companies. This is a disaster in the making.

Going by Chinese official media commentaries, Beijing is getting increasingly concerned with the Indian media questioning some of its own government’s policy and position towards China. The Chinese are uncomfortable that the media reflects the larger public opinion which a government in a democracy cannot ignore. They have, therefore, adopted a three-pronged approach.

First, persuade the concerned Indian authorities to pressure the media not to write critical articles on China. Next, they have tried to win over Indian writers, with some success. Now, they have begun to write directly on the issue.

The Global Times (Oct. 30) wrote that the media created misunderstanding in the minds of their readers, rather than promoting understanding. The Article written by Chen Ping, deputy managing editor of the newspaper, interpreted Indian media’s criticism of China as biased writing. He mildly says that some mistakes have also been made by the Chinese media, but glosses over them. Mr. Chen Ping, however, seems to have missed his own newspaper’s article of October 07, trashing India on the river water sharing issue. A recent study by Sarah Cook of Freedom House, USA details how even foreign media are pressurized to tailor their reports in line with the thinking of Chinese authorities. This has not yet happened to Indian journalists, but if the Chinese authorities have declared open seasame on foreign media the Indian government and media should be alert.

Yet, on the other hand, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was accorded unprecedented welcome by the Chinese. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao came out of retirement to host Dr. Singh to a luncheon. Premier Li Keqiang took Dr. Singh on a personal guided tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing. This writer cannot remember any former serving head of state or government having been given such a welcome in the past.

No government in the world, and certainly not the Chinese would have given such grand welcome to a foreign dignitary without some equally important purpose in mind. One can only make an informed guess in this particular case.

In this particular case the Chinese may be recording their appreciation of a foreign leader who rose over domestic constraints to single-mindedly pursue the goal of improving relations with China. This would be a polite message to India’s next prime minister.

It must also be noted that three prime ministers- that of India, Russia and Mongolia arrived in Beijing the same day, no mean skill of China’s diplomacy. All the three visiting prime ministers came with friendly intentions. The extra welcome shown to the head of government of India, an acknowledged rising power, proved China’s commitment to harmonious relations, peaceful rise, and pursuing a win-win relationship with all its neighbours. This, they would explain, is part of Chinese dreams in its foreign policy.

In substance, everything remains the same. Advantage China, and Beijing will continue to hold serve. In India, however, there appears to be a greater understanding of China.

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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