By Swaran Singh
Assessments about Delhi's winter fog are making Indian Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh begin his sojourn to China earlier than
expected. His flight will arrive in Beijing early on Sunday morning
rather than late in the evening. He will use this additional time
to acclimatize to Beijing's chill, and to scale the Great Wall.
Attempts are also being made for him to address one more
business meeting, a turf that this professor of economics may find
far more familiar to deal with. But even here, his challenges of
outlining his vision remain formidable to say the least.
Given that both China and India have emerged as two of fastest
growing economies and increasingly influential in international
decision-making, their summits have become events of global
interest. But then this also puts a premium on making each such
visit a breakthrough event.
However, despite their rapid rise, the whole understanding of
"breakthrough" in China-India relations has come to be narrowly
defined in terms of progress made in their boundary negotiations.
And recently, their border talks seem to have lost both urgency and
momentum and are now viewed in "strategic" terms.
The special representatives format for border talks set up
during the last visit by then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari
Vajpayee in June 2003 had picked up speed by signing an agreement
on general principles and outlining drafts for a second framework
agreement in their nine rounds in first three years.
The two sides have tried hard to inject some enthusiasm and
early last year the two sides had even set up an experts group to
assist the special representatives. But this has not shown results
so far. The Indian foreign minister last week admitted that this
summit is not expected to achieve any "dramatic turnaround" in
their boundary negotiations.
Meanwhile, camouflaging this slowdown of their boundary
negotiations, the officials from both sides have continued to
deflect the focus to their economic engagement. But again this most
happening arena of their relationship has also increasingly become
an enigma confounding both our economists and politicians at the
First, political leaders have repeatedly failed to keep tab on
the pace of their bilateral trade trends. Their bilateral trade has
moved 2.6 times up in the last four years since the last visit by
an Indian prime minister.
Second, these impressive statistics of bilateral trade continue
to defy the fundamental economic logic and has not moved from trade
to investments. Though the last decade has witnessed Indian
companies mushrooming across China, China's investments in India
have remained stagnant.
Among other systemic hiccups, India's security concerns remain a
Third, while India prided itself as being one of the most
balanced trade partners of China, it increasingly faced exports
sliding into deficit with China.
Fourth, even in the face of Indian exports failing to keep pace
with China's exports to India, this relative imbalance in their
trade remains vulnerable to half of India's exports being of one
commodity, for instance, iron ore.
This skewed nature of India's export basket also remains under a
cloud for making no value addition to this primary source, and is
subject to limitations as this export cannot be expanded any
Contributions by India's services sector have shown impressive
growth trends yet remain only marginal to their overall trade.
Fifth, this apparent trade boom and their continued "peace and
tranquility" on their border regions has also failed to show any
impact on their border trade which continues to hover at around a
meager $1 million with seasonal swings.
The hype surrounding the opening of the third border trade route
through Nathu La in Sikkim has also subsided gradually. This has
put question trade being the strongest pillar of their confidence
building approach to their political relationship.
The picture of course also has a few new silver linings. Past
decades had witnessed an exclusive domination by a small group of
linguists and military and civilian officials with postings to
China or the China border - mostly with negative experiences and
Today, an increasing number of businessmen, students and other
tourists are visiting China. They all have strong positive views
favoring closer links with China, and also for learning lessons
from China. But the Indian prime minister is not scheduled to
address the Indian community in Beijing.
Apparently, much more still remains to be done. There is
particularly need for expanding mutual tourism and other regular
exchanges. During the year 2007 that was designated as the Year of
China-India Friendship, India received less than 100,000 of 35
million Chinese travelers abroad for that year.
On the eve of the prime minister's visit, the Indian embassy has
reportedly overhauled visa collection and delivery both by
outsourcing and internally reorganizing.
As part of these symbolisms, the two prime ministers will attend
the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Dr Dwarkanath S.
Kotnis' arrival in China in 1938 and launch the establishment of a
joint medical team put together by the Indian Council of Cultural
Relations and the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with
Foreign Countries - each providing 10 doctors.
This team will provide free medical treatment and conduct other
charity activities in both countries thereby strengthening each
other's positive perceptions.
This summit, accordingly, comes about three weeks after their
much-awaited anti-terrorism joint-military exercises in Kunming,
Last year also witnessed their third Strategic Dialogue between
Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and Vice-Foreign Minister Wu
Dawei and the 11th round of Special Representatives' border talks
October last year had the much-discussed high-profile visit to
China by Chairperson of United Progressive Alliance Sonia Gandhi
and her son Rahul Gandhi. Meanwhile, Premier Wen Jiabao and
President Hu had visited India respectively in April 2005 and
Given the focus of the visit being on expanding economic
engagement, leading lights of India's business organizations,
including representatives of the Confederation of Indian Industry
and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, are
part of the Indian prime minister's team.
Between them, these industrialists straddle diverse sectors
including information technology, automobiles, petrochemicals,
media, pharmaceuticals, engineering and telecommunications. A
40-odd-member business delegation will interact with more than 400
Chinese businessman and officials.
China signed a Memorandum of Understanding for civilian nuclear
cooperation during President Hu's visit to New Delhi during
November 2006, it has made this amply clear that it will not stand
in India's way.
Both leaders are expected to discuss prospects of civilian
cooperation, especially Beijing's active support to India seeking a
waiver at the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Indeed, on future issues their enhanced cooperation and dialogue
in areas like counter-terrorism and climate change will be part of
their deliberations where agreements and joint strategies are
likely to emerge much more easily.
The author is associate professor with the School of
International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
(China Daily January 11, 2008)