Fri, Dec 17, 2010 - Page 9 News List

‘Special relationship’ between India and China looking fragile

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s priorities for his current trip to India lack a sense of strategic urgency, which, given rising tensions, is a serious blunder

By Jaswant Singh

“Tzu-Ch’in said to Tzu-Kung: ... Our Master gets things [done] by being cordial, frank, courteous, temperate, deferential. That is our ... way.” But will Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) live up to that standard, as conveyed in the Analects of Confucius, on his current visit to India?

The world has a variety of “special relationships.” The US’ partnership with the UK is one forged in war — and a pillar of the West for more than a half-century. The US-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War era was special in that relations between those two countries shaped the fate of the world until the USSR imploded. The US and China are said to be forging a new special relationship.

But, in looking toward the future of Asia — and, indeed, the future of world diplomacy — it is the relationship between the world’s two most populous countries and largest emerging economies, India and China, which will increasingly set the global agenda. Japan’s change of military doctrine for the first time since the start of the Cold War — a shift that implicitly makes China the greatest threat — suggests that the Chinese leadership needs to take a hard look at its regional grand strategy.

Wen’s priorities for his trip to India are clear: trade, security, and, far behind, the territorial disputes between the two countries. Such an approach might make tactical diplomatic sense, as long as there is no background clatter. But it lacks a sense of strategic urgency, which, given rising international tensions across Asia, amounts to a serious strategic blunder.


The sources of those tensions are clear: North Korea’s shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and its flaunting of a modern, previously unknown, nuclear plant; the US-led armada now cruising through the South China and Yellow Seas; and China’s claim that the South China Sea is an area of vital national interest akin to Tibet.

In its bilateral relations with India, China’s shift in focus from its claims on the Northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh to Jammu and Kashmir is enormously worrisome. Indeed, around Gilgit in Kashmir, China’s People’s Liberation Army has greatly enhanced its troop presence. Small wonder that, on the eve of Wen’s visit, China’s ambassador in New Delhi finds relations between the two countries to be “very fragile, easily damaged, and difficult to repair.”

Despite all this diplomatic friction, Wen’s entourage for his visit is dominated by a large business delegation. Currently, both countries’ economies are thrusting confidently forward; both are thirsty for more and bigger markets.

India is growing at an annual rate of around 9 percent; China at around 10 percent. So the opportunities for trade between the two are certainly enormous. However, for both countries, economic growth is not hurdle-free.


India’s economy is continuing to grow, but faces rising inflation, fiscal and current-account deficits, a slowdown in agricultural growth and infrastructure bottlenecks. China’s problems arise mainly from widening income disparities, which are inciting hitherto unheard of levels of labor unrest — though this should not be viewed as a precursor to change of the sort that marked the rise of the Solidarity trade union and the end of communism in Poland.

Labor unrest and the desire to maintain 10 percent growth suggest that China should be taking the lead in ensuring peace on the Korean peninsula and preventing other political developments from derailing its economy. After all, as the Chinese leadership knows, only continued strong growth will provide the government with the wriggle room it needs to begin to revalue the yuan.

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