Tue, Nov 28, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Hu's trip to subcontinent a turning point for political, trade ties

AFP , BEIJING

Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤)successfully negotiated the political minefield of back-to-back visits to India and Pakistan as all three nations focused on the benefits of closer trade ties, analysts said.

Hu was due back in Beijing on Sunday after a near blemish-free week on the subcontinent, where he sold the message to a slightly skeptical India of the riches that China offered and oversaw a free-trade pact with close ally Pakistan.

"If India and China take the necessary steps to strengthen trade and business, the 21st century will be Asia's," Hu said in Mumbai as he urged the two nations to work harder towards a free-trade pact.

Earlier in the visit, the world's two most populous nations agreed to double trade to US$40 billion by 2010 and push ahead with efforts to settle a long-festering border row that brought them to war in 1962.

In Islamabad, Hu and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf oversaw the signing of a free-trade agreement and committed their two nations to expanding their ties in other spheres such as the military.

Officials said the trade deal could triple trade between China and Pakistan to US$15 billion within five years.

"This serves the fundamental interests of our two peoples and is also conducive to the peace and development of our region," Hu said.

He was in Lahore on Sunday for the inauguration of an electronics plant and a "higher economic zone" being set up by China.

Hu's trip to both countries, the first by a Chinese president since Jiang Zemin (江澤民) a decade ago, had been seen as potentially fraught with difficulties given the two neighbors' historic rivalry.

While China wanted to engage India and continue to improve ties that still suffer from Cold War animosities, it did not want to do that at the expense of its alliance with Pakistan or by upsetting the sensitive regional balance.

"In the past, when Chinese leaders visited these two countries, they always went to Pakistan first and then India," said Zhang Li (張立), a professor with the Institute of South Asian Studies at China's Sichuan university.

"But this time Hu Jintao visited India first. There's something in that. China's South Asian policy has changed in recent years. China is now carrying out a balanced diplomatic relationship with India and Pakistan," Zhang said.

Aside from their ongoing territorial dispute and India's concern about China's cosy ties with Pakistan, Beijing and New Delhi have also increasingly become competitors globally for energy and other natural resources.

But while Indian industry chiefs and government leaders may not be prepared to trust China and remain concerned over security issues, they do understand that engaging the Asian economic powerhouse is the only way forward.

"Why should we cut off our nose to spite our face? The process of engagement on trade will continue despite security concerns," said G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian ambassador to China.

T.S. Vishwanath, head of international trade policy at the Confederation of Indian Industry, India's leading business lobby, said both nations understood the "huge opportunities" in working together.

"Both economies are growing very well. Both can serve as markets for each other. They realize it can be a win-win scenario for both of them," Vishwanath said.

From Pakistan's perspective, the need for China to build closer ties with India is understood and it is not a major concern because Beijing is also very intent on expanding its alliance with Islamabad.

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