Can China and India forge an Asian century?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 June, 2003, 12:00am

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to China should provide the opportunity to further consolidate ties and develop a stable bilateral relationship in the 21st century. It is the first visit by an Indian prime minister since September 1993, when P.V. Narasimha Rao signed the historic agreement to maintain peace along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas.

The past decade has seen both progress and setbacks in relations. Jiang Zemin's visit to India in 1996 was the first by a Chinese head of state, which resulted in another major agreement on military confidence-building. The normalisation process has seen regular high-level exchanges and the establishment of a Joint-Working Group to discuss a range of bilateral issues, including border negotiation. Bilateral trade has also grown substantially, to about US$5 billion last year.

But distrust remains. India's nuclear weapons tests in May 1998 and the justification offered greatly upset China. India's warming ties with the United States at a time when Sino-US relations were experiencing difficulties also heightened China's concerns.

Unresolved territorial disputes remain a major obstacle. Negotiations have been slow, and despite 14 rounds of meetings since 1989, major progress has yet to be achieved. The Tibet issue presents another thorny problem. India, likewise, remains suspicious of China's strategic intentions in South Asia. China's strong relationship with Pakistan, in particular its alleged transfer of missile-related and nuclear technology, remain a major obstacle.

Mr Vajpayee's visit presents yet another crucial opportunity for the two countries. A joint declaration on principles for relations and comprehensive co-operation, and a memorandum of understanding on opening border trade have been signed; the two countries have also inked a number of bilateral agreements covering cultural, educational and scientific and technological co-operation. These are important steps. But the leaders of the two Asian giants should seize the moment and make greater efforts in five key areas.

To begin with, China and India should strive to dispel mutual suspicion and distrust through strategic dialogue. From China's perspective, a better relationship with India at the strategic level pre-empts a potential Indo-US collusion that could be targeted at China. For India, fully normalised relations could give China the incentive to reduce, if not completely sever, defence ties with Pakistan.

Second, the two countries must find ways to resolve their territorial disputes. The un-demarcated boundary is a legacy of the colonial past of which both India and China were victims. The 1962 war has left a deep scar in bilateral relations, but it should not be allowed to stand in the way of better ties. The Line of Actual Control, with some minor modifications, should be the starting point for negotiating a final settlement. The critical issue will be whether both sides have the political will to remove this major obstacle. This requires not only decisions - and courage - at the highest level but also the political skills to sell it to their respective domestic constituencies. That the two governments have each decided to designate a high-ranking official as a special representative on this issue is a sign of their determination to speed up the resolution of the border dispute.

How to manage the China-India-Pakistan triangle will be another major factor. China should make greater efforts to address India's legitimate concerns over its defence ties with Pakistan. China has for many years denied allegations about its nuclear and missile-related transfers and assistance to Pakistan. But it has to present a more convincing case to India that it, too, believes it has great stakes in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. China should also use its strong relationship with Pakistan to play a more active role in facilitating a diplomatic reconciliation between the two South Asian countries.

Fourth, China and India should seek to accommodate each other's interests and demonstrate good will, even if doing so means making some token concessions. India could show a greater appreciation of China's sensitivity over the Tibetan issue. China, on the other hand, could address the issue of Sikkim, which was incorporated into India as a state in 1975 - but which China has yet to recognise formally. The joint declaration and the memorandum of understanding on border trade to some extent address these two issues and demonstrate how political will could translate into substantive results.

Finally, as the world's two largest developing countries and rising powers, China and India share many common interests at international and regional forums. They should seek greater co-operation on nuclear disarmament, the environment, population, anti-terrorism and co-operation on economic development, among other things.

As two fast-growing economies, there is great potential for China and India to further expand their bilateral ties through trade, investment and technology transfers. When the two countries, which together represent one-third of the world's population, join hands in pursuing common security and shared prosperity, they may, indeed, be able to turn this into an Asian century - an observation made by Mr Vajpayee during his meeting with President Hu Jintao in St Petersburg.

Mr Vajpayee came to China 24 years ago as India's foreign minister to mark the beginning of a long process of normalisation between the two countries. His current visit could prove to be another historic moment.

Jing-dong Yuan is a senior research associate at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and the co-author of China and India: Co-operation or Conflict?