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Monday, December 13, 2010

Will Wen’s India visit be a success?

Geopolitical notes from India
M D Nalapat
During the last quarter of 2010, the Heads of Government of all the P-5 (Permanent Five in UN Security Council) will have visited India. The first to land in Delhi was UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who made an excellent impression in India, in contrast to some of his predecessors. Next followed US President Barack Obama, who created history by setting in stone the foundations laid by George W Bush of a US-India alliance. Next has come President Sarkozy of France, a country that even during the dark days of the Clinton administration was friendly to India (in contrast to the UK, which followed the Clinton line as faithfully as a poodle). On December 15,Premier Wen Jiabao of China comes calling, followed a week later by Russian President Dimitry Medvedev.

Bill Clinton was faithful to the State Department rule that India must always be equated with Pakistan, and visited Islamabad after taking off from Delhi. However, of the five P-5 leaders coming to India, only Premier Wen Jiabao of China is following this script. He will visit Pakistan after India, thereby ensuring that Islamabad enjoys parity with Delhi in his travels. In other matters as well, China differs from Russia, the UK, France and the US on its India policy. It is the only power within the five that has yet to endorse India as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the reason being that it does not want to seem as though Beijing is favouring Delhi over Islamabad, its all-weather friend since the time of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s. On Kashmir, Beijing has continued with the line once followed by the US and the UK (but never by Russia and seldom by France) that India should make substantial concessions to Pakistan for the sake of peace. Several in South Block regard an Indo-Pakistan peace as being of much greater benefit to Islamabad than to Delhi, and hence believe that a lot of the sacrifices should be made by Pakistan. This is clearly not China’s view. Policymakers here (and this column is are clear that as the bigger country, India should concede more - much more - than Pakistan. This Pakistan-oriented view is particularly strong within the Peoples Liberation Army, which considers the Pakistan, Myanmarese and North Korean militaries as being their closest allies, with India’s military remaining a concern rather than a source for joy.

Chinese websites devoted to military issues are uniformly critical of the investments being made by the armed forces in India on modernization of the military, and warn that this may lead to “an arms race with Pakistan”. They do not understand that a section of the strategic community in India looks forward to such an arms race, believing that such an effort to catch up with India would bankrupt Pakistan the way the USSR was hollowed out from within by trying to catch up with the huge increases in the US defense budget under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Unlike in the US, where all except a handful of scholars have de-hyphenated India and Pakistan, the Chinese strategic community still sees India as a “South Asia power”, and not as a global or even a pan-Asia one. Hence their incomprehension about the military modernisation being carried out by India, a process that unfortunately has not yet led to the vibrant private sector in India being given the right to produce defense equipment.

Although Defense Minister Arecaparambil Kurian Antony is an honest man, the lobby within his ministry that seeks to continue the policy of relying only on the government sector and foreign companies fort defense equipment is too strong fort him to prevail, hard though he may try to ensure that the Indian private sector gets a level playing field in the defense sector with foreign companies. A consequence of the present policies is that India pays much more for acquiring systems than some other countries, two examples being the inordinate cost of a Russian aircraft carrier - the “Admiral Gorshkov” - that is fit only for the junkyard, and the cost being asked by France for to refit a few Mirage aircraft., An entire (private sector) plant could be set up for the $2 billion price being demanded for this particular upgrade, the most expensive ever carried out by the Indian Air Force, a good reason why those in the Defense Ministry (situated at North Block) oppose such a private sector plant from coming up.

The contrast between China and India is huge. Here in the PRC, the government encourages local plants to come up, and insists that foreign suppliers transfer technology. Already China (which at one time was as dependent on foreign countries for its military aircraft as India still is) has a thriving aviation sector that has sharply reduced its expenditure on foreign military aircraft. Indeed, China is now exporting its own aircraft, including to Pakistan. Soon, because of the boost given to indigenous Science & Technology by President Hu Jintao, the PRC is likely to emerge as a challenger to Boeing and Airbus in international markets, something Russia has not been able to achieve, despite its head start in technology. During the 1960s,Moscow was ahead of Washington in modern technology, but these days, has fallen far behind Beijing, which during that time was behind Delhi, which till today depends on imports for meeting nearly 80% of its critical hi-tech needs.

Should China and India become geopolitically close, the duo would emerge as a formidable global player, with 2.5 billion people and the two fastest-growing major economies. Already, China is the world’s second-biggest economy while India is fourth, and both are growing very fast, even during these recessionary times. Given the immense commonality of interests between the Chinese and the Indians, it is surprising that the two countries are still “distant neighbours”. By the time this column appears, the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony would be taking place.

Several countries close to China – including naturally Pakistan - are boycotting the ceremony in deference to the wishes of Beijing. Despite the powerful European lobby in the Kremlin led by President Medvedev (who always looks uncomfortable while travelling outside Europe, but very happy within that continent), Russia too is boycotting the ceremony, as also a staunch US ally, Saudi Arabia. However, the expectation is that India will be among the 40-odd countries that attend, mainly because it is the world’s largest democracy, and crusading for greater democratic freedoms is no crime in India, except where inner-party democracy is concerned. Many who wish to see the impending December 15-17 Wen Jiabao visit to India fail are hoping that India’s presence at the ceremony honouring dissident Liu Xiabo will cast a blight over Wen’s visit.

However, the Chinese premier is unlikely to oblige them. President Hu Jintao understands the importance tom China of good relations with India, and it is learnt that he personally asked Wen to go to Delhi. Clearly, the Chinese side is expecting that the visit will generate a momentum that can reverse years of bad feeling between China and India. Among the thorny issues on the India side is the recent Chinese practice of giving stapled visas to those travellers from (India-administered) Kashmir, while giving regular visas to those from the Pakistan side. For the past year, Delhi has frozen all military ties with China in retaliation for the last-minute withdrawal of a visa to the North Zone Commander of the army, on the grounds that his turf includes Kashmir. This when officers hailing from the Pakistan side of the divided state freely visit China, and are even accorded official honours there. This clear double standard has led some in North Block to argue that India should begin giving stapled visas to Chinese nationals coming from Tibet, a policy that may soon get implemented. Both External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao have made it clear that India regards Kashmir as a core issue, the way China sees Tibet. The unspoken corollary is that India will treat Tibet the way China treats Kashmir.

Hopefully, such irritants will cease, and the Wen Jiabao visit will be a success in convincing Indians that China no longer hyphenates India with Pakistan, and will follow other global players in crafting a policy towards India that is not based on its western neighbour. Good relations is a win-win for China and India., while bad relations is a lose-lose for both countries.

The Wen visit is hugely important, in that it can set the tone of Sino-Indian relations for a long time. At present, errors in Chinese policy towards India are having the effect of pushing Delhi away from Beijing, the way errors in policy have led to Tokyo and Seoul reversing their earlier line of getting closer to China. It takes two to tango, and as Foreign Secretary Rao saud, it is for China to untie the knot it has created by visa denial to an army general, state boycott of Indian software, and stapled visas for Kashmiris.

—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India

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