At 10.30 am on December 22, twentyfive years ago, China’s ‘Paramount Leader’ Deng Xiaoping clasped Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ‘s hand in Bejing’s Great Hall. ‘I welcome you to China, my young friend,’ Deng said. ‘This is your first visit to China.’ The handshake lasted a long time, says the late Natwar Singh, who was present at the ceremony as India’s junior foreign minister.
Gandhi’s was the first visit to China by an Indian Prime Minister since 1954. India’s humiliating defeat in a war over a border dispute in 1962 had cast a chill that can be felt to this day. Ambassadorial relations had been restored in 1976 but eight rounds of talks to resolve the border dispute had droned on ‘like flies over a mound of stale rice,’ to quote Deng.
Gandhi did not expect a breakthrough. But he did not want rude surprises like China’s invasion of Vietnam sprung on foreign minister Atal Behari Vajpayee when he had landed in Beijing in 1979. China itself was looking at an India different from the one led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
Rajiv Gandhi was dismantling state controls. He wanted India to molt through Information Technology. Foreign policy was becoming more pragmatic and less moralistic. The economy was being opened up, just as China’s had been in 1978.
Chinese scholar Alka Acharya says the visit was ‘a step, not a leap forward,’ but National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, who was councillor in the Beijing embassy at the time, and later ambassador, believes it was ‘transformative’ and ‘truly historic.’
The visit laid down the basis for ‘peace and tranquility’ on the border, the phrase written into an agreement during Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to China five years after Gandhi’s. There have been tense incidents since then, but no flare-ups; the last person to die on the border was in 1977.
Successive Prime Ministers have built on that visit. Peace, fraught at times, has held. Trade has boomed though it is highly in China’s favour. The boundary issue has not been resolved; the line has not been delineated. Broad principles were agreed upon during Premier Wen Jiabao’s India visit in 2005. A framework for resolution is in progress though critical differences remain.
India-China ties have remained a ‘leadership-led relationship,’ says Menon. They require push at multiple levels. Despite increased tourism (from India) and business (two-way), there is ignorance at the popular level. This must be cured. India must make the study of China a national objective. It must allow Confucius Institutes to be set up. Mandarin must be taught in schools. Sadly, India has not been issuing visas to Chinese teachers. So I was happy to read a news report in November that the Central Board for Secondary Education will get 25 Chinese teachers for Delhi schools.
The business community could have been a champion of better relations, but the huge trade deficit makes it less enthusiastic. We cannot blame China entirely for this. Over the last few years, India has let its economy falter.
China’s GDP per person at $6,091 in 2012 is four times that of India’s at $1,489. The gap has widened since the present ruling coalition took over in 2004.
China’s per capita income was a little more than double at that time. It will stretch if India does not take energetic steps to revive high growth while China is pushing ahead.
The current central committee (18th since the Communist takeover) at its third annual meeting in November decided to give markets a ‘decisive’ rather than ‘basic’ role in the economy. China is opening up its services sector. In September, it launched the Shanghai Free Trade Zone as a Hong Kong-like financial services enclave on the mainland, where capital and commodities would flow freely, whereas India’s 2007 plan to make Mumbai an international financial centre has been forgotten.
The trade deficit is also an opportunity to attract Chinese investment in Indian infrastructure. This will improve our export competitiveness while giving the Chinese better returns on its dollar reserves invested in US treasury bonds. The unresolved boundary dispute remains a thorn. Though China agreed to tamp down on the areas of disagreement during Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit in 2003, it continues to needle India by issuing stapled visas to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir and claims that the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is South Tibet.
China’s protestations that its rise is not a threat rings hollow when it keeps it neighbours on the edge, the latest instance being the requirement that planes flying over the East China Sea, including over islands disputed by Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, identify themselves to its military.
Calm on the border has helped China and India prosper; a settlement without exchange of people or large swathes can create an economic bloc that will transform the region. Chinese leaders must bring warmth into the long handshake.