Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will shortly be meeting in China President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao on what has now become a regular annual catch up between India's and China's leaders. Like all the other recent visits, this one too will be big on atmospherics with little on substance.
It is now commonly agreed in the West that China is its next major challenge. The typical Western notion of balance of power politics requires a fast rising India to be in its corner. The Chinese too suspect that many among India's leaders, Manmohan Singh being the least among them, would be quite willing to go along with this. Whether they are right or wrong is not the issue, the important thing is what they believe or suspect. Given this backdrop, good atmospherics itself is a major achievement.
Sino-Indian economic ties are growing as envisaged. By 2010 bilateral trade may even top US$50 billion. India still mainly exports primary goods to China and China largely exports mass produced and often low-tech manufactured goods to India. But the value addition still accrues largely to the Chinese, meaning that they still benefit more from this. Despite this, both countries still by and large do not actively encourage greater economic entwinement.
India is still deeply suspicious about the antecedents of many large Chinese companies such as Huawei and China Harbor, which are actively seeking to pitch camp in India. China still does not allow our big infotech players like TCS and Infosys much ingress into Chinese markets. Both the countries equally prefer to do business with the West and both the elites have not outgrown their aversion for each other and their preference for all things Western. This is not likely to change soon, and Manmohan Singh and Hu Jintao are unlikely to facilitate a strategic coming together of the strengths of the two countries. Thus, typically, India and China will be happier buying Boeing and Airbus aircraft than making them jointly when the biggest markets for them are they themselves.
There is unlikely to be any major shift in the border dispute between the two countries. In fact things have only worsened. In the last few years the Chinese have managed to turn the border dispute into a territorial dispute. Till the eve of the last Hu Jintao visit to India in 2006, Indians had begun to assume that the issue was one of demarcating the lines of actual control, basing this on China's offer twice in the recent past to settle the issue by freezing the borders on an as-is-where-is basis.
When Deng offered it to Rajiv Gandhi, he demurred fearing a domestic backlash. When Jiang Zemin offered it to Narasimha Rao, he too demurred for fear of how his own shadow may react. But what we evolved were the guiding principles and peace and tranquility on the border agreements. The somnambulistic Vajpayee, much to the chagrin of the Tibetan diaspora, conceded that Tibet was an inalienable part of China in exchange for China's recognition of the accession of Sikkim into India. Typically the Chinese have been tardy about this in reality for many official Chinese websites still show Sikkim as independent. One supposes that China being a large country the word takes time to filter down. And we Indians can be quite patient!
In the recent months the Chinese have been stepping the ante on Arunachal Pradesh. The untimely and hence rather undiplomatic comment by then ambassador Sun Yuxi about China's outstanding claim on the Indian state, followed by the denial of a visa to a senior official from Arunachal Pradesh and by a rising tide of aggressive statements on the Track II seminar circuit are clearly a setback.
Some influential Chinese have now taken to saying that only the Tawang tract is the issue and that Chinese and Tibetan public opinion can be assuaged by India transferring it to their control. This allusion to the existence of "public opinion" comes as a revelation to Indians familiar with China and Tibet. It is true that the present Dalai Lama formally laid claim to Tawang in 1947, but has since renounced any Tibetan claim to it. The truth is that when China occupied Tibet in 1951, India established formal control over Tawang the same year. If one is challenged, then so must the other.
There are other differences also. Except for the denizens of the Tawang monastery, the majority of people in the Tawang tract and the rest of Arunachal Pradesh are overwhelmingly non-Tibetan in ethnicity. As a matter of fact Hindus who account for over 30 percent of the state's population are its biggest religious group.
If ethnicity is taken as criteria, than the small population living sandwiched between the McMahon Line and the south bank of the river Tsangpo, who are ethnically the same as those living in Arunachal, provide a basis of integrating that region into the state. The Chinese need to revisit Lenin for his views on the rights to nationality of smaller ethnic groups. Then the Chinese must also realize that lasting peace and friendship with India can only be assured by their not having a sub-Himalayan presence.
No regime in India can accept a Chinese presence on the foothills. It is highly doubtful that Manmohan Singh will read the riot act to them on this. So peace and tranquility will prevail on the border till they decide to pull the rug from under it or create a not so tranquil peace.
From the Chinese perspective they find it inexplicable as to why all Indian governments find it difficult to accept their control over the Aksai Chin as final. That, my friends, is due to public opinion, which is real in India and merely a chimera in China. The Chinese cite all their border agreements with their other neighbors, but somebody needs to tell them that they need to consider the nature of each one of the regimes that concluded border agreements with them.
Manmohan Singh is unlikely to either. The important thing is we are still talking which is a lot better than sulking. This we must till a global scenario emerges that forces Indians and Chinese alike to think big and act in concert. So like other previous Beijing visits there will be a lot of Beijing duck consumed during this one also, and one more duck is of no great consequence.
(Mohan Guruswamy is president of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi (www.cpsaindia.org), and a frequent commentator on Sino-Indian relations. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)