Singh’s Visit to China: Views from Beijing

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 4

Indian journalists traveling with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted that the flight was bumpy and the weather freezing when they arrived in Beijing. Yet Singh’s first visit to China turned out to be warm and smooth. While underlying Sino-Indian tensions were far from being laid to rest, Singh did not return to New Delhi empty-handed, having signed numerous agreements to boost ties and a joint document setting out their strategic vision for future relations. Singh’s visit marks an important step forward in high-level summitry that may contribute to a gradual détente between the two Asian giants.

Chinese experts point out that Prime Minister Singh’s visit accomplished two key outcomes. Firstly, this visit marks an increase in the pace of senior-level dialogue. The previous visit by an Indian prime minister to Beijing was five years ago, and the visit before that was fifteen years ago. Singh’s visit marks the start of more regular visits from Indian leaders, prompting a return visit by the Indian prime minister and scheduled visits by the foreign minister and president later this year. Secondly, the visit marks the setting of new trade objectives, with a new target increased from $40 billion to $60 billion by 2010. The initial $40 billion benchmark was set during President Hu Jintao’s visit to New Delhi in 2006 and is expected to be attained in 2008; the bilateral trade volume currently stands at $38 billion (Economic Times [India], January 15). For China, the rapid growth in commerce between the two giants represents an important insurance policy that contributes to a de-escalation of tensions and conflict. Beijing’s theory is that growing trade relations will undermine the “China threat theory” that persists in India, building links between India’s middle class and Chinese businesses and expanding a pro-business, pro-China constituency within democratic India.

While media and scholars from both China and India were openly optimistic and waxed lyrical about progress that has been made building economic and security ties, there is clearly an undercurrent of distrust and concern that is voiced more openly in India and less candidly in China. Chinese officials and scholars keep a much lower profile and are reluctant to be openly critical or make statements that could be inflammatory, particularly if they run against the prevailing government editorial view. The outputs of Indian scholars, on the other hand, represent a broad array of views, though Chinese scholars are keen to dismiss many of the Indian analysts as being too “journalistic” and lacking appropriate academic rigor or having political relevance, particularly when they express concerns about China’s growing military might and more assertive foreign policy. Less voiced among analysts and experts are underlying concerns on both sides about the implications of the respective economic and military rise of each nation.

What was Agreed On

During Prime Minister Singh’s visit, China and India signed a joint statement seeking to promote a “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity.” It emphasizes that both sides will seek to strengthen ties while preventing differences, such as the border conflict, from undermining an improving bilateral relationship. The joint statement covers key issues including trade, international relations, energy, climate change and security relations.

China has been quite keen to expand trade with India, leveraging its competitive advantage in mass manufacture of light-industrial goods for export. China eyes India’s 1.1 billion consumers—particularly its expanding middle class—as an attractive market in itself and a potential counterbalance to its dependence on U.S., European and Japanese export markets. Yet tensions remain as Indian businesses point to an annual $9 billion trade deficit with China, despite India’s efforts at protectionism and China’s assurances that the gap will shrink with increased Chinese buying missions.

The joint statement also addressed international relations, including both nations’ tolerance of the other’s participation in regional groupings and the agreement on the need for reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). India was stung by China’s opposition to India’s aspirations for a permanent seat on the UNSC in 2005. Revealing that China’s primary objective in 2005 was preventing Japan from obtaining permanent membership, China is now trying to prevent UNSC reform from becoming a wedge issue between it and the rest of the developing world clamoring for a seat. The joint statement represents a refinement of China’s position towards India, recognizing “India’s aspirations” but stopping short of an endorsement. Clearly, China worries that if it voices outright support for India’s membership at this point, it will make future reforms of the UNSC exceedingly difficult and lead to a flood of requests for support from around the world. According to a prominent Chinese-Indian scholar Ma Jiali, “It is too early to get China’s vote, this is as much as we can give them at this time.”

The announcement that China and India will cooperate in exchanges and development of civilian nuclear projects reflects Beijing’s unease with India’s nuclear agreement with the United States, as well as a desire to engage India more closely to ensure it is fully aware of developments in India’s nuclear program and that its interests will not be harmed. After initial opposition, Beijing has stated it will not resist the India-U.S. civilian nuclear deal—though Beijing is hardly enthusiastic. While there is no clear plan for China-India nuclear cooperation at this point, this highly visible agreement—in principle at the highest political levels—provides the opportunity for exploration of more specific schemes. India has ambitious plans to expand its nuclear capacity from the current three to 20 gigawatts by 2030, presenting ample opportunities for collaboration with China at some level (Energy Information Agency; International Energy Outlook 2007).

Climate change was also on the agenda and an area where there is clear agreement that neither China nor India should be obligated to make commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Neither China nor India will allow their economic growth and resulting energy consumption to be constrained by developed countries, particularly when measured against the United States and Europe’s higher per capita emissions and historic burden of accumulated emissions.

What Kept in the Box

While Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Beijing marks a milestone in the two nations’ desire to build trust and strengthen relations, it did little to diminish the most contentious issues that continue to sow distrust. Pakistan and the unresolved China-India border remain the two 800-pound gorillas in the room. China’s support for India’s arch-enemy Pakistan is a perpetual source for suspicion amongst Indians. During Prime Minister Singh’s visit, little was mentioned publicly about the political uncertainty in Pakistan, though it was certainly discussed privately. Growing political unrest in Pakistan is in neither side’s interest and the potential for political chaos and a deteriorating security situation in the region is a significant concern for both sides. Unfortunately, neither China nor India has a clear plan to respond to the situation, though some Indian analysts attribute China’s willingness to engage India more substantially on the border issue to the uncertainty over Pakistan.

The border is clearly the most contentious bilateral issue and the source of much of the underlying distrust and suspicion. Indian analysts are particularly candid in their disappointment in the lack of progress toward resolution, identifying intransigence and growing assertiveness on the part of the Chinese. India refused to schedule Singh’s visit until Sun Yuxi, the former Chinese ambassador to India, could be recalled and replaced following his particularly inflammatory remarks made in 2007 about the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh being Chinese territory. Indian officials also announced that Chinese troops had made hundreds of incursions in the previous year (Financial Times, February 1; The Asian Age, January 15). Indian analysts highlight Chinese investments in infrastructure in the border area—including roads and even the rail line to Tibet—pointing out their comparative lack of capacity to bring strategic resources to the front should hostilities break out. Shortly after Prime Minister Singh left Beijing, Chinese officials protested Indian military infrastructure projects close to the line of control. Moreover, Prime Minister Singh visited the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh soon after returning in an effort to reassure Indian hawks and conservatives that he was not surrendering the territory, and subsequently announced a raft of development projects worth $2 billion (Economic Times [India], February 9; BBC, February 1). Singh became the first prime minister to visit the state in 10 years—a clear signal to Beijing that the border issue is far from resolved.

Some Chinese analysts felt that encouraging remarks made by senior leaders about the border issue were an effort to contain the dispute and isolate it from the broader bilateral relationship. Acknowledging that resolution was unlikely in the near future, one Chinese expert stated an assessment that both China and India must simultaneously meet two conditions in order to settle the disagreement. First, both sides need sustained political will at the highest levels. Second, both countries’ leadership requires “strong governments” enjoying the unconditional confidence of their people. Under the current system of collective leadership, it is unlikely that Chinese leaders will feel that they are in a position to make the necessary compromises that will permit an agreement to be reached. Likewise, any Indian politician seeking future election will be reluctant to take a soft line on China’s claims to territory that most Indian voters regard as theirs.

Mutual Suspicions Remain

Geopolitically, both China and India harbor mutual suspicions and concerns that the other might align against it with third parties in a strategic containment effort. China is barely able to mute alarmists, pointing to India’s strengthening relationships with the U.S. and several East Asian nations. Analysts elucidate Chinese fears about India’s strategic intentions and its role in global conspiracies to encircle it, by a “concert of democracies” as proposed by Japan or by a security alliance led by technologically superior militaries. In 2007, the United States, Singapore, Australia and Japan joined India in naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, prompting U.S. officials to respond to Chinese concerns by stating that the exercises do not target China, nor seek to contain them. That said, Chinese experts and policy makers do not feel particularly threatened by India alone, asserting that China has the upper hand in terms of economic growth, military modernization and virtually all other measures of “comprehensive national strength.”

India for its part is concerned about growing Chinese hegemony in what it perceives to be its sphere of influence, including the Himalayas, South East Asia and Indian Ocean. Chinese naval modernization is proceeding at a rapid rate, and while not patently focused on India, Chinese diplomatic advances in South East Asia and the Indian Ocean raise concerns amongst Indian security experts. Furthermore, India is concerned that it is losing out to Chinese commercial and political advances in their overlapping spheres of influence. Chinese investments in infrastructure, particularly the rail link to Tibet and growing China-Nepal relations appear as zero-sum gains in the eyes of many Indian strategic thinkers. China’s commercial and political successes in South East Asia—including advances in Myanmar and Vietnam—highlight the shortfalls of India’s “Look East Policy.” Likewise, analysts in China and India agree that economic conflict is entirely possible in the future, either in a competition for global sources of direct investment, energy or access to third-country consumer markets.

In the security field, mutual suspicions and diverging perceptions remain. Indian scholars have soberly assessed the joint anti-terrorism exercises held in December between 206 Chinese and Indian troops have done little to build confidence or reduce tensions on the border (Rediff, December 31, 2007). While Chinese official pronouncements elevated the significance of this step in reducing tensions and improving relations in the security sphere, Indian analysts have instead focused on the lack of concrete outcomes, highlighting different norms between Chinese and Indian thinkers. While the Chinese side publicly emphasizes principles and the process of dialogue, Indians are visibly frustrated by the lack of focus on the outcomes reflecting the fact that little progress has actually been made.

Chinese and Indian leaders recognize that their bilateral relationship is of “global significance” and that creating a peaceful environment for their respective economic and social development is a priority interest for both. No doubt, Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Beijing was an important step in strengthening their relationship. However, if the two countries cannot substantially address the underlying concerns between them, the emerging strategic partnership highlighted by Prime Minister Singh’s visit will forever represent the unmet potential of the relationship, rather than signaling concrete achievements to come.

The observations made by the author were drawn from conversations with various Chinese think tanks and specialists during a recent visit to China.