Has the Chinese wall crumbled?

China is slowly getting round to view India as a major potential partner, not an adversary

Pranay Sharma Delhi

Chinese leaders are sticklers for diplomatic convention and protocol. When they break away from that norm, they have a good reason for it. The official visit by the leader of a country to China usually has a state banquet or an official lunch to mark the occassion. Private dinners are kept for very special guests and friends. Premier Wen Jia Bao's decision to host one for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on January 13 in Beijing, the night before the two sides began their official engagement, could be described as a departure from the norm.

Strictly speaking, Wen is number three in the Chinese pecking order. He comes after President Hu Jin Tao and the People's Congress (Parliament) —Chairman Wu Bang Guo. The decision to host the dinner for Singh, therefore, must have been a collective decision of the Chinese leadership.

But why is China trying to break from protocol to show such a special gesture to India?

Simply put, China wants to woo India and make it clear that in the Chinese scheme of things New Delhi figures very prominently. It is a clear signal to India that Beijing considers it to be a close partner and not a threat or an adversary. It needs India's support and active participation in building a 'harmonious society' in Asia and elsewhere in the world. Wen's private dinner was the right occasion for the two leaders to discuss the issues at hand, informally, and strike the right chord.

For the past decade or so, the leadership in China has decided that if it has to emerge as a major world power, it needs to build a strong economy. But a strong economy can only flourish if the situation within and outside China remains peaceful. A stable neighbourhood and strong ties with the countries in it therefore becomes essential.

China has managed to establish peace in the north with its strong ties with Russia. It has stable relations with the central Asian republics through its Shanghai Cooperation Organisation initiative. It has good relations in the east with Korea and Japan, despite the minor hiccups in the relationship with the latter. In the south-east, it has managed to strengthen its relations with the major countries with the 'Asean plus Three' initiatives. The only worry for China has been in the south-west and because of the uncertainty in its relations with India.

Manmohan Singh's three-day visit to China, from January 13 to 15, should be seen in that backdrop. But where does China fit in the Indian scheme of things?

It would be an understatement to say that China is not only India's biggest neighbour but also one of the major powers in the world today. From their bonhomie in the early 1950s, to the deterioration in relations leading to a war in 1962 on the boundary dispute, Sino-India ties have gone through several 'ups' and 'downs' in the past decades.

The nuclear tests India conducted in May 1998 and the subsequent upswing in Indo-US ties has brought China back firmly on the radar of the Indian foreign policy establishment. One section that continues to be worried about China's intentions has been pushing firmly for closer relations between New Delhi and Washington. It believes that a strong strategic partnership between the two countries is the only answer to cap China's growing clout in Asia. But there are others in the establishment who are keen to develop Sino-Indian ties at the same time as New Delhi strengthens its relations with the US. They argue that in India's quest for a prominent place at the international stage, it would be essential for it to have strong ties with all the major powers in the world, including China.

The controversy over the civilian nuclear deal that India plans to sign with the US and its close strategic ties with it has raised serious concerns among different political sections in India. The Left parties, whose support is essential for the Congress-led UPA coalition government to survive, has been particularly vocal against India moving closer to the US at the cost of other countries, mainly China.

For the past months, the Congress leadership has been trying to dispel such doubts. Congress President Sonia Gandhi's visit to China in October last year was meant to reassure the Chinese leadership as well as Left party leaders and others in India that the UPA wanted to deepen and strengthen its ties with Beijing. It was Manmohan Singh's turn as prime minister to re-affirm that reassurance and also respond to the Chinese initiative for a strategic partnership with India in which the two neighbours see each other as close partners.

'The shared vision for the 21st century' that the two prime ministers signed at the end of the visit was a clear signal of that stand. And there were other forms of substantial progress as well.

For India, one of the most crucial issues was to get China's support on the nuclear issue. Leaders in China are aware that India is keen to go ahead with the nuclear deal. But before the US domestic laws can be changed, the existing laws at  the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as well as at the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) have to be altered. Presently, they prevent commercial transactions between its members and any country like India that has not signed the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In the past, China had maintained ambiguity on its stand about supporting India at the IAEA and NSG. But this time around, it made it clear that Beijing would not stand in the way if other members were willing to change the rules in these two bodies for India. The shift in the Chinese stand could have stemmed from the fact that because of strong domestic opposition within India, the deal would finally be aborted. But this could also be seen as an acceptance by China that it had more to gain than lose by keeping India out of the nuclear weapons power club.

At the same time, it should also be seen as an acknowledgement by China that growing Indo-US ties was a reality that would contribute to strengthen Sino-Indian ties and stabilise the neighbourhood. But it wanted a reassurance from India that there would be no move to contain China. "The two sides hold that the right of each country to choose its own path of social, economic and political development in which fundamental human rights and rule of law are given their due place should be respected," the shared vision statement said.

This clearly states that India finds no problem in working closely with China — a country that by no stretch of imagination could be described as a democracy. That is, there would be no attempt by India to promote democracy in China or elsewhere in the region and it is not considered as an essential criterion for progress, peace and stability of the neighbourhood.

There was progress in other areas as well. China's support for India's aspirations at the UN Security Council was stated in no unclear terms. India in turn reaffirmed its support for a 'One-China Policy'. India opposed activities that goes against this spirit — perhaps keeping the proposed referendum that the Taiwanese government is due to undertake in March this year in mind. New Delhi also removed the bar on Chinese companies competing in infrastructure development in India and agreed to set up a Regional Trade Arrangement with China to boost the growing economic cooperation further.

Realistically speaking, Manmohan Singh has just turned the first page in a very delicate chapter in Sino-India relations. It remains to be seen whether the future leaders of the two countries have the inclination and desire to go through the subsequent chapters of this rather layered and complex book.