Hu Loves Whom? China Juggles its Priorities on the Subcontinent

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 25

From November 20-26, President Hu Jintao paid consecutive visits to India and Pakistan, concluding a nearly two-week, four-country trip through Southeast and South Asia. The Delhi stop was the latest in a recent spate of bilateral diplomacy that includes the April 2005 announcement of a “strategic partnership” between the two countries, while Islamabad trumpeted Hu’s visit there as proof of the enduring Sino-Pakistani “all-weather friendship.” While Hu reached deals covering everything from the establishment of new consulates to trade promotion, it was clear that he had difficulty tackling the most important challenges in the region. On both the question of future nuclear cooperation with the subcontinent as well as the region’s various territorial disputes, President Hu attempted to avoid committing Beijing to positions that would offend either (or both) of his hosts, but found his attempts frustrated by the high expectations on each side. The difficulties that Hu encountered—as well as his efforts to deal with them—point to a rapidly evolving Chinese role in South Asia as Beijing attempts to merge its longstanding strategy of containing Indian influence in the region with growing expectations that China will play the role of a “responsible stakeholder.”

A New Nuclear Deal?

The nuclear question has been central to South Asian politics for decades and was accordingly a major focus of President Hu’s visit in November. As Hu set off, the U.S. Congress was wrapping up legislation to permit U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation under a July 2005 agreement, a move that has since been finalized. Washington now requires the approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a body of advanced nuclear states that would have to provide an exemption for civil nuclear trade with India, which has not joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The essential dynamics of the NSG’s approach to India have been clear for some time: Washington and several of its allies (along with major nuclear technology exporters such as Russia and France) seek to issue a single-instance exception from NSG rules for cooperation with Delhi, while Beijing seeks to simultaneously receive clearance for it to develop a civil nuclear partnership with Pakistan, which is also not a member of the NPT.

The Chinese government indicated its position on using the NSG process to cut a deal earlier this year when it observed that the U.S.-Indian “agreement will have a ‘rippling’ effect, which means that Pakistan, which has a similar position as India on the nuclear issue, may make similar demands” (People’s Daily, March 4). Fortunately for Islamabad, Beijing is willing to meet those demands. China has since laid the groundwork to help Pakistan reach its announced goal for an 11-fold increase in nuclear energy production from 770 megawatts today to a planned 8,800 megawatts by 2030, including reported talks to construct a 2,000-megawatt nuclear plant near Islamabad (Asian Age, April 11). The only remaining barrier is NSG approval.

President Hu’s South Asian tour introduced a new twist to this narrative, however, as a newsbreak on the eve of his departure revealed talks toward an accord with Delhi on civil nuclear cooperation modeled on the U.S.-Indian deal (Boston Globe, November 20). No detailed agreement was reached during Hu’s visit, but the following text was included in the November 21 joint declaration between Hu and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “The two sides agree to promote cooperation in the field of nuclear energy [and] stress the importance of further cooperation bilaterally as well as through multilateral projects such as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experiment Reactor), and enhance exchanges in related fields” (Xinhua, November 21).

At the same time that Beijing floated the prospect of a nuclear deal with Delhi, Hu was also surprisingly tepid in his endorsement for civil nuclear cooperation with Islamabad. Nuclear energy was mentioned only in passing in the joint declaration with President Pervez Musharraf, and no side-deal on nuclear issues was reached despite Pakistan’s expectations. One Pakistani commentator described the comparative outcomes in Delhi and Islamabad as a reminder that “there are no permanent friendships” between nations and suggested that Pakistan had been betrayed by its erstwhile ally (The News, November 23).

Despite the frustration in Islamabad, it appears that Beijing is pursuing a tactical game for managing its negotiations in the NSG. Beijing is aware that it already possesses a strong hand entering the NSG talks on India and Pakistan, and it could only suffer for showing its cards and revealing a detailed plan for nuclear cooperation with Islamabad. Likewise, indicating its support for a bilateral agreement with India demonstrates Beijing’s intent to make cooperation with both countries appear as equivalent as possible—the two sides of one coin.

Shifting Sands on Territorial Disputes

One area where China managed to disappoint both of its interlocutors was on the various territorial disputes in the region, specifically on the question of Arunachal Pradesh (which is administered by India but claimed by China) and the perennial Indo-Pakistani stand-off in Kashmir. China’s efforts to handle each of these questions has shifted over time, but Beijing is now facing significantly greater pressure to move from using the disputes as a tool in its policy of containing Indian influence to acting as a regional peacemaker.

One week before Hu arrived in Delhi, Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Yuxi declared that Arunachal Pradesh is a part of China’s territory, leading to a furor in the Indian press and a joint resolution from India’s Parliament denouncing the statement and reaffirming Indian sovereignty over the state. Although China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson attempted to back away from Ambassador Sun’s comments, Hu avoided addressing the issue during his visit. China’s inability to meet Indian expectations on the Arunachal Pradesh issue led to distinctly different assessments of the summit: whereas Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing called the meeting a “remarkable success,” his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee described it as only “reasonably successful” (Inter Press Service, November 28).

Since the summit, Mukherjee has raised the ante by threatening to take measures against Ambassador Sun for violating protocol on the Arunachal issue, and has also reintroduced India’s grievances over the 14,000 square miles of Indian-claimed Jammu and Kashmir under Chinese occupation (Times of India, December 15). The Arunachal Pradesh issue is particularly galling to the Indians because since 2003, Delhi has recognized Tibet as Chinese territory and committed itself to preventing anti-Chinese political activities from being organized within India. One Indian commentator surmised the lack of reciprocal efforts from China to address Indian concerns as proof that “Beijing had its way vis-à-vis New Delhi on the issue” (Business Line, November 27).

While in Islamabad, Hu also had difficulty meeting his hosts’ expectations for a sustained Chinese commitment to the Pakistani position on the dispute over Kashmir. When asked by Pakistani journalists what role China would play in pressing a resolution for the territory, Hu responded that both India and Pakistan were “China’s close neighbors and Beijing sincerely hoped to see peace and stability on the subcontinent” (Hindustan Times, November 30). Islamabad’s Daily Times retorted: “China has distanced itself from committing, at least overtly, to a ‘substantive’ and ‘meaningful’ role that it could play towards the resolution of the Kashmir issue between Pakistan and India…Pakistan used to call China its ‘all-weather friend’ because it leaned clearly in favor of Pakistan since 1962…Now Pakistan says China is still its all-weather friend after hearing from the Chinese they don’t want to take sides on Kashmir” (Daily Times, November 27). China has thus found itself in the cold with both of its neighbors, simultaneously blamed for being too hard and too soft on territorial issues and with heightened tensions on each side.

Finding a New Role in South Asia

President Hu’s handling of nuclear and territorial issues during his trip to South Asia indicates that Beijing is attempting to balance an assortment of priorities. First and foremost, China seeks to maintain its traditional approach of containing Indian influence on the subcontinent and bolstering Pakistan as a strategic proxy [1]. Hence the tactical, though politically difficult, maneuvering to lay the groundwork for an NSG outcome that creates civil nuclear exceptions for both countries. This priority likewise justifies the hard line on Arunachal Pradesh, a territorial claim that forces India to divert its military power to a region that is almost operationally impossible to defend.

Simultaneously, Beijing feels pressured to respond to a combination of U.S. policy initiatives that have weakened its position in the region, as well as the changing economic geography of South Asia. The development of closer U.S.-Indian strategic ties means that Beijing has to draw closer to India if it is to counterbalance growing U.S. influence in the region. At the same time, the growing expectation that China will act as a “responsible stakeholder” means that Beijing is pressed to reach accommodations where it can avoid appearing excessively threatening to its neighbors. A response to these dual pressures is indicated by the Sino-Indian joint statement’s attempt to articulate a vision of the two countries’ future relationship: “Each side takes a positive view of the development of the other, and considers the development of the other side as a positive contribution to peace, stability and prosperity of Asia and the world…[T]hey are not rivals or competitors, but are partners for mutually beneficial cooperation. They agree that there is enough space for them to grow together, achieve a higher scale of development, and play their respective roles in the region and beyond, while remaining sensitive to each other’s concerns and aspirations” (Xinhua, November 27). The “this town is big enough for the both of us” subtext to the statement indicates that the two countries have begun to think seriously about how they can accommodate each others’ rise, a development that would have been difficult to imagine without Delhi’s growing support from Washington.

At the same time that Beijing attempts to recalibrate in response to the changing strategic balance in South Asia, China’s economic ties with Pakistan and India have also changed tremendously in recent years. From 1996 to 2005, bilateral trade between India and China increased by an annual average of 34%, while bilateral trade with Pakistan has increased at 18% annually. China is now India’s second largest trade partner, and India is China’s largest trading partner in the region by a wide margin (Xinhua, November 24). Although these changing ties mean a great amount on a wide variety of fronts, a singular consequence is that Beijing must now tread ever more carefully in the region if it is to manage its ever-growing agenda there.

The exact outcome of these pressures is not clear. China still believes that it can achieve many of its traditional objectives in the region, but it also now feels compelled to go through the NSG process before assisting Pakistan’s nuclear program. China will likewise find that its relations with India will require greater flexibility on the territorial issue, as Delhi can finally flex its own muscles over the dispute. All in all, these are signs that Beijing is learning the challenges that accompany the role of a “responsible stakeholder.”


1. For a detailed discussion of Beijing’s containment strategy toward India, see Christopher Griffin, “Containment with Chinese Characteristics: Beijing Hedges Against the Rise of India,” AEI Asian Outlook, available at,filter.all/pub_detail.asp.

2. Data compiled from UN Comtrade database, available at