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Looking beyond the Boundary

Monday 11 April 2005

THE VISIT BY Premier Wen Jiabao to India - the first by a top Chinese leader after the generational change of guard in Beijing - is an excellent opportunity for both sides to reiterate that the bilateral relationship is increasingly one of shared interest, agreement, cooperation, and warmth. Following Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s breakthrough visit to China in December 1988, bilateral relations have progressed hearteningly. Over the past 16 years, except for a short-lived aberration that came with India’s May 1998 nuclear weapon tests, successive Indian governments located at different points in the political spectrum have acted wisely to consolidate the gains of what, in retrospect, can be recognised as Rajiv Gandhi’s most enduring achievement. The Joint Declaration signed during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003 demonstrated the maturity the bilateral relationship had attained. There has been a friendly dialogue on the boundary dispute, reflecting mutual willingness to be guided by a big picture vision of bilateral ties - the "strategic high ground," in Premier Wen’s words. Since the 2003 decision to elevate the dialogue to the level of Special Representatives, New Delhi and Beijing have held four rounds of talks to arrive at a framework, or "guiding principles," for settling the dispute. There are expectations on the Indian side that such a framework will be settled during Premier Wen’s New Delhi visit, or soon after.

The breakthrough achieved in 1988, with the blessings and active encouragement of Deng Xiaoping, lay in India and China agreeing, for the first time, at the top political levels not to use force to alter the status quo along the Line of Actual Control; and that peace and tranquillity would be assured along the long, unsettled boundary at both the military and political levels. Once that progressive framework was put in place, many good things followed. It is unrealistic to expect any early settlement of a dispute that is at least five decades old and has always needed a give-and-take approach, as opposed to unilateralism. What is clear is that bilateral ties will be better served by going boldly and imaginatively for an expansion of the bandwidth of the relationship. New Delhi and Beijing held their first strategic dialogue in January, signalling intent to find common ground and cooperate on a range of international issues. Such convergence exists, for instance, in the principled opposition by the two countries to the United States-led invasion of Iraq, and on certain key World Trade Organisation-related issues. With China and India among the world’s leading energy consumers, there is realisation that in this crucial sector cooperation is more sensible than competition. While Beijing is still ambiguous about India’s bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, New Delhi will certainly welcome recent remarks by Premier Wen, the second-ranking Chinese leader, that his country "understands" India to be a "major developing country that plays a positive role in regional and international affairs ... [and is] ready to see a greater role of India in the international arena, the U.N. included."

The importance China attaches to strengthening its economic ties with India was evident from Premier Wen’s decision to begin his four-day visit to India at Bangalore, the country’s software capital. China has been an open admirer of India’s emerging status as a software `superpower,’ and prospects of cooperation in the field of information technology are exciting. From $ 2.9 billion in 2000, the level of bilateral trade has jumped to more than $13 billion, bringing the target of $25 billion by 2010 within reach. It is well known that the Chinese Premier is keen on concluding with India an agreement for what can become the world’s largest Free Trade Area. New Delhi should go boldly for this, notwithstanding apprehensions expressed by protectionist business lobbies. It is true that China, on a spectacular long-term trajectory of close to two-digit annual economic growth, has made major inroads into the Indian market. But over the past few years, many significant sections of Indian industry and business have shed traditional fears and suspicions, with some leading companies setting up operations in China. Increased trade and economic cooperation and people-to-people contacts between the two "Asian giants" hold the key to regional peace, stability, development, and prosperity. All this will pave the way for a strategic partnership, which China has proposed and India should grasp with both hands.

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