Hands across the Himalayas

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am

Premier Wen Jiabao has declared his first visit to India next month the 'most important event on my calendar', summing up the significance of engaging China's nuclear neighbour. Mr Wen said the whole world would be watching when India and China shook hands.

Indian analysts say Mr Wen will be the most important world leader to visit New Delhi in April - India's diplomatic spring - followed by Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Although Mr Wen will visit three other countries - Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka - India tops his agenda. Arriving on April 9, he will spend four packed days in Bangalore and New Delhi.

The climax of his visit will be the signing of what is being touted as the 'Delhi Declaration' by Mr Wen and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh. The signing ceremony is expected to be a big media event.

The wording of the joint declaration is still a secret but the aim, diplomats say, is to upgrade bilateral ties to a strategic partnership.

The world's two most populous nations have come a long way since 1998, when India's defence minister publicly branded China its No1 enemy.

After exploding nuclear devices, India sent a note to Washington that China was the reason. The United States leaked the Indian premier's letter to the press, leaving relations between China and India in tatters.

Since then a lot of water has flown down the Ganges and the Yangtze. Expectations are soaring in both countries that Beijing and New Delhi will bury decades of conflict and suspicions to emerge as trade partners rather than sparring partners, and coexist in regional peace and prosperity.

Boosting trade and economic ties figures prominently in Mr Wen's wish list.

In 1992, trade between the two nations was worth just US$340 million. By 2003, it had jumped to US$5 billion and now it has reached US$13.6 billion.

This year, China could become India's third-largest trading partner, after the US and the European Union.

Pritimoy Chakraborty, an Indian businessman who has made more than 140 trips to China since 1997, says rising trade volumes will force the two to find solutions to nagging political, territorial and military disputes.

The trader has made his millions buying cheap cameras, plastic toys, cigarette lighters, torches, mini-fans, mini-cassette players and hairdryers in China. He sells them to Indian corporations such as Indian Tobacco Company, Hindustan Lever, Duncans and Cadbury India, which give the goods away to promote their brands.

'Businessmen from the two countries get along fine,' Mr Chakraborty said. 'Ordinary Chinese and Indians are also well disposed towards one another. Rapidly growing bilateral trade is bound to become an incentive for lasting peace.'

His advice to Mr Wen and Dr Singh is to build on increasingly strong business relations. 'Strong economic ties, promoted by governments and forged by businessmen on both sides of the Himalayas, will help exorcise the ghosts of the past,' he said.

'Business is the best antidote for bitterness.'

Although bilateral relations have been warming up lately, they are still haunted by New Delhi's provocative 1998 remarks, besides bitter memories of the Himalayan border war fought over land in 1962.

That is why Mr Wen and Dr Singh hope to finalise a set of guiding principles to resolve the festering border dispute - the biggest obstacle to tension-free ties.

Mr Wen has made it clear he will 'seek a fair resolution to the vexed boundary issue on the basis of mutual accommodation and accommodation of reality'.

According to Sajeda Momin, a political commentator with the Statesman newspaper: 'If Mr Wen and Dr Singh can somehow resolve the nagging territorial dispute, they will be hailed as great statesmen instead of ordinary politicians who come and go.'

While China claims almost the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, India accuses China of forcibly occupying 38,000 sq km in the remote Aksai Chin area and 5,180 sqkm in northern Kashmir, ceded to it by Pakistan. In 2003, both sides agreed in principle to swap land to resolve the border row, but implementing the pact is proving difficult.

Now the prospects of a breakthrough are brighter.

The Dalai Lama has just asserted that he is ready to accept that Tibet remains a part of China.

'The exiled Tibetan leader's latest overtures to Beijing have created the right political ambience for Mr Wen's high-profile visit,' said C. Raja Mohan, a foreign policy analyst. 'India and China should be relieved by the Dalai Lama's flexibility on the Tibet question. A hardline approach would have spoilt the current attempt to transform Sino-Indian relations. He has consciously chosen to make it easy for China and India to party.'

India gave shelter to the Dalai Lama after a 1959 revolt against Chinese rule, and a Tibetan government-in-exile still has its headquarters at Dharamsala in India.

The two sides are also set to discuss allowing businessmen from both countries to invest in each other's enterprises.

An aviation agreement to allow daily flights between the two countries is on the cards. New Delhi also wants connections with Kashgar in Xinjiang if Beijing has no objection.

Moreover, India wants to tap China's expertise in the mining sector as well as infrastructure development.

The premier's visit may herald new Chinese-Indian energy co-operation, including joint ventures for oil exploration to feed the two countries' growing economies.

G. Parthasarathy, a diplomat turned columnist, says India can learn a lot from China's dynamism in acquiring equity stakes in oil, gas and coal exploration in countries ranging from Australia and Canada to Iran and Sudan.

But he said Dr Singh should forcefully voice India's concerns about China's military and nuclear assistance to Pakistan when he meets Mr Wen.

'The issue is vital but in the past our leaders have been extremely reluctant to take it up with their Chinese counterparts,' Mr Parthasarathy said.

China's special relationship with Pakistan, India's nuclear rival, is a thorny issue for New Delhi.

Even as Mr Wen pulls out all stops to normalise relations with India, he is obviously so sensitive to Islamabad's concerns that he is starting his goodwill tour of South Asia with a two-day visit to Pakistan.

Analysts describe former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to China in 2003 - the first by an Indian premier in 10 years - as the turning point in relations, which had been frosty since India's humiliating defeat at the hands of the People's Liberation Army in 1962. The highlights of Mr Vajpayee's trip were China's acknowledgement of Indian sovereignty over Sikkim and India's reciprocal acceptance of Chinese control of Tibet.

During Mr Vajpayee's visit, China and India also agreed to reopen the Tibet-Sikkim trade route through the Nathu La, a Himalayan mountain pass used by traders, travellers and pilgrims until its closure in the early 1960s.

Ties have been improving since 2001, when former National People's Congress chairman Li Peng spent eight days in India.

'The stage is now set for a major breakthrough,' Ms Momin said. 'Mr Wen and Dr Singh would be foolish to mess up such a grand opportunity to go down in history as statesmen.

'Who knows, they might even bag the Nobel Prize for Peace if they play their cards well.'


- Boosting trade and economic ties. In 1992 annual bilateral trade amounted to US$340 million. Now it has reached US$13.6 billion

- Setting out guiding principles to resolve the border dispute and heal the bitter memories of the 1962 war

- Signing an aviation agreement to allow daily flights between India and China

- India to share China's expertise in mining and infrastructure development

- Joint ventures in exploration for oil