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Hu Jintao's visit: Time for pragmatism

By M V Rappai
November 21, 2006 19:27 IST
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The unsavoury and avoidable diplomatic spat over Arunachal Pradesh just days before the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to India highlights the complexities of the relations between the two Asian giants.

India and China may have upgraded their diplomatic relations to the current level of "strategic comprehensive partnership for peace and prosperity", but many pitfalls remain. But quick corrective measures by Beijing, which played down the remarks of their envoy in New Delhi, is a sign of the importance given to the relationship by the two countries.

Hu will visit India after attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, and then leave for Pakistan, making this his first major Asian tour since he took over as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in 2002 and subsequently as the President of China in March 2003.

This will be the second visit by a Chinese President to India after its liberation in 1949. His predecessor Jiang Zemin visited India 10 years ago, in 1996.

After a long estrangement following the 1962 border clashes, India and China revived full political and diplomatic relations with the historic visit of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing in 1988.

Since that visit, there has been a lot of high level exchanges between the two countries, whose leaders also met often at other multilateral meetings around the world.

The two nations have also forged a trilateral relationship with Russia, and the heads of state of the three nations met for the first time under this framework earlier this year.

There was a substantial improvement in Sino-Indian political relations after the visit of then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Beijing in 2003.

During his visit, it was agreed to raise the status of the long pending border talks to the political level by appointing Special Representatives.

The visit of Premier Wen Jiabao to India in 2005 gave a further boost to the bilateral relationship. And in June, the visit of Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee to China led to several crucial confidence building measures (CBMs) between the armed forces of the two countries.

Energy is another area where the two sides are now cooperating, instead of competing. Both nations need enormous amounts of imported energy resources like petroleum, gas etc to sustain their growth. After the energy ministries of both countries started cooperating, the state owned companies of both nations have successfully bid for oil fields in third countries.

Among other things New Delhi and Beijing have reportedly agreed to establish a hotline between the foreign ministers to improve issue based coordination, as part of a larger cooperation structure between the two foreign offices.

But the primary focus for this visit will be economic and trade relations, and the two nations are likely to sign a "bilateral investment protection agreement." Two rounds of expert level meetings have already been held to examine ways to improve trade.

At the moment two-way trade between the two countries consists largely of raw materials and intermediary products for manufacturing industries, and there is thus tremendous scope for development.

But the Chinese proposal to sign a Free Trade Agreement is likely to be politely turned down by New Delhi, which prefers a graduated Regional Trade Agreement mechanism that suits India's broader interests.

As for the border dispute, chances are that the two sides will agree to let the Special Representatives -- who have met thrice so far -- continue their discussions.

There is also speculation that the two sides might decide on allowing another consulate in China and India. While China wants to set up one in Kolkata, India might ask for one in Lhasa.

In a larger perspective, if Hu, who leaves for Pakistan from India, signs a civilian nuclear agreement with Islamabad on the lines of the India-US accord, there will be more Indian voices clamouring against Sino–Pakistan collusion.

But in order to enhance its own growing national aspirations, it will be in India's larger interest to use this visit to forge a mature, pragmatic relationship with another emerging power.

The author is a analyst with the Institute of Chinese Studies, CSDS, Delhi

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M V Rappai