True value of Sino-Indian ties

Updated: 2013-05-27 07:10

By Suhit K. Sen (China Daily)

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During the recent standoff between Chinese and Indian troops on the non-demarcated Sino-Indian border, the dominant reaction in India was: the government must confront China and show it its place, accompanied by all the blahs, blahs that Sino-hawks never tire of peddling.

That was the bad news. The unmitigated good news was that all this customary white noise was emanating mostly from the usual suspects: so-called policy wonks safely ensconced in their "think" tanks, a vastly inapt appellation; media anchors, and, yes, as usual, the audiovisual commentators led the charge of the flyweight brigade; and some political parties - no prizes for guessing that the ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was right there in the ruck, contributing the highest decibels to the ruckus.

The even better news, again expectedly, was that the Indian government, especially the External Affairs Ministry, led boldly and assuredly by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, refused to be browbeaten. Backed unambiguously by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it just ignored the jejune, if not infantile, call to arms, repeating ad nauseam that this was a localized problem and would get sorted out in due course. All that was needed, the Indian government repeated in a manner that was reassuring to all but the Sino-fundamentalists, was that the two sides should sit down and have a purposeful dialogue.

Khurshid refused to cancel his impending visit to Beijing, which in turn was meant mainly to work out the details of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to India, now just concluded. That was, indeed, Li's first official foreign trip after assuming office. Needless to say, the Cassandras can take a long vacation in cooler climes to "de-escalate" their own internal tensions because by all reckoning the trip was a success, if one goes by how these kinds of bilateral exchanges are supposed to pan out. And, yes, before the exchange of visits, the border standoff was indeed settled. A lot of Sturm und Drang to no visibly productive end.

At the end of his talks with the Chinese premier, the Indian prime minister did refer to the unacceptability of any incursion into the border - but that was only to be expected. It was couched, on both sides, by references to the need to upgrade the mechanism for dealing with border disputes, though the two sides inflected their statements in different ways. While Li seemed to make more of a technical point, Singh appeared to raise the larger issue of the need for "peace and tranquility on our borders" as the basis for expansion and growth of bilateral ties.

Two more questions were addressed: one apparently successfully, the other without immediate resolution. The riparian question was cordially dealt with, with the assuaging of India's apprehensions about damming of rivers upstream seeming to have begun with an agreement on greater sharing of hydrological data. It has appeared for a while that mutual misapprehensions have been more a question of transparency rather than an issue of substantive disagreement.

The one that got away was the issue of India's adverse balance of trade with China - $29 billion in 2012 according to Indian media reports. Indian media also reported that the economic delegation accompanying Li consisted preponderantly of business representatives who were interested in a greater share of the Indian consumer market rather than being "buyers" of raw materials and finished goods. That is a problem that has to be addressed by the ministries concerned in further negotiations, keeping in mind, of course, the relevant size and structure of the respective economies. It can hardly be wished away, for instance, that China has a far more robust manufacturing sector producing cheaper goods bought all over the world, not just in India.

But in a sense these are matters of detail. There are two important points that need constant iteration. One is a matter of principle as well as pragmatism. India has an unsettled border already with Pakistan, which needs constant policing. One wishes that Indo-Pakistani relations improve to the point that this no longer remains the case, but no one is realistically holding his or her breath until that happens. The border with Nepal, too, is problematic for a variety of reasons, the least of which not being the attempts of some countries to use it as a launching pad for incursions of various kinds.

The Indo-Bangladeshi border is the most "secure" but remains a concern over smuggling, infiltration by various groups, though now much reduced, the problem of enclaves and, finally, problems caused by rivers that keep shifting courses creating a huge problem of erosion and shifting borders.

In such a situation, pragmatism surely demands foregoing the luxury of opening up another front, especially when it has been abundantly demonstrated at least over the past quarter of a century that Sino-Indian disagreements can be amicably resolved.

The matter of principle is no less important. First, of course, is the blindingly obvious and, therefore, somewhat vacuous, point that negotiation is always better than hostile posturing. The more important point is that as two of the biggest economies in the world, more specifically in Asia and the global South generally, India and China have common interests - not least of which is to provide leadership to the developing world in the crucial areas of global negotiations on environmental and trade-related issues.

This can hardly be dismissed as the pipedream of a bleeding-heart, left-liberal intellectual forever positioning himself - in this case - against the neo-imperialist designs of, specifically, the United States. In fact, the past decade or more has shown clearly that when India, China and the other emerging economies have made common cause, the unfair, self-aggrandizing and at times almost criminal self-interestedness of the developed world has been successfully countered.

That has much, much more value than petty minded bickering over trivial details.

The author is an independent journalist and researcher, based in Kolkata, India.

(China Daily 05/27/2013 page9)