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Bound for Beijing, army hopes to close bitter chapter

Jyoti Malhotra  |  New Delhi 

A multi-command delegation from the Indian army is leaving for a six-day visit to China from June 19 to 24, putting a lid on the controversy sparked last year by the denial of a visa to the commander of the northern command, Lt Gen B S Jaswal.

And, since diplomacy is the art of the possible, India and China have agreed on the importance of saving face for each other, by adjusting the composition of the delegation, so that it doesn’t cause offence.

In place of Gen Jaswal is Gen Gurmeet Singh, not the top officer of the northern command but a major-general in charge of counter-terrorism operations in three districts of Jammu & Kashmir.

The Chinese had denied a visa to Gen Jaswal because of Beijing’s heightened rhetoric over Jammu & Kashmir, considered a “disputed territory” by its chief friend and ally, Pakistan.

Beijing’s change of heart has been gradually taking place for a few months now, and, since October 2010, it has even stopped stapling visas of J&K residents who want to visit China. But government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that only a handful of residents had since applied for a Chinese visa, and so “there wasn’t a large enough body of evidence” to enable them to declare victory on this account.

Nevertheless, the current state of the Sino-Indian relationship could be best described as a “holding operation”, said one official, with some irony.

With the top leadership of the Communist Party of China, including President Hu Jintao, retiring over 2012-13, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led government embroiled in a series of scandals, both sides seem to lack the political will to push through major initiatives, leave alone breakthroughs.

On top of the bilateral agenda is to demarcate the 4,000-km-odd boundary between the two Asian giants. The issue has been embroiled in a dispute since the 1962 border conflict. But despite several rounds of talks between the Special Representatives on the border, National Security Advisor Shiv Shanker Menon and Chinese state councillor Dai Bingguo – the first conversation began in 2003 under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government — both sides have hardly come significantly closer to resolving the dispute.

Highly placed sources said Beijing was not willing to abide either by the Chou Enlai or the Deng Xiaoping formula, which envisaged a status quo, more or less, with minor adjustments. This means, China would get to keep most of Aksai Chin in J&K, which it currently controlled, and India would keep Arunachal Pradesh.

The sources said India had even come around to agreeing with the Chinese that it would not recognise the MacMahon line, since it had been drawn by the British imperial power. But Delhi would not agree to giving up territory, especially in Tawang, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama.

In the interim, India had sought to assuage Chinese sentiments by recognising Tibet as an autonomous region of the People’s Republic and kept its ongoing relationship with the Dalai Lama-in-exile largely under cover.

With the political shake-up in Beijing, including the retirement of Dai Bingguo, on the cards, the Sino-Indian boundary dispute seems destined for “the next generation” of Indians and Chinese, the sources said.

Meanwhile, they said, the visit of the Indian army delegation to Beijing, the Lanzhou military region, as well as Xinjiang, is heavily replete with symbolism. Lanzhou is one of the seven military regions in China, directing all military and police forces in Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Shaanxi and Ningxia. Xinjiang’s chief cities, Urumqi and Kashgar, were once at the heart of British Central Asia and its predominant Muslim population has been kept under control through a combination of sops for ethnic minorities and Beijing’s “strike hard” policies.

The visit of the Indian army delegation will also likely signal a resumption of the defence dialogue between the two sides.

The government sources also pointed out that despite promises made to the prime minister, during his visit to Beijing in April and during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Delhi in December, there has been little headway in allowing Indian pharmaceuticals or IT companies to open shop in China.

These companies had been complaining about a lack of market access, despite the fact that China, at $60 billion, was India’s largest trading partner. Chinese leaders had promised the PM that they would soon change conditions to allow a more level playing field, but this hasn’t happened yet.

On the other hand, India watches carefully as China expands its influence in South Asia, especially Afghanistan. Officials said they were “stunned” by comments from the Afghan leadership, during the PM’s visit to Kabul last month, over Pakistan’s suggestions to President Karzai that Afghanistan, after US withdrawal, could ask Pakistan and China to “look after” its economic and political concerns.

The officials said China would not want to get involved in playing off India against Pakistan in Afghanistan, but would prefer to keep its head down and focus on maximising profits from mineral concessions, such as copper, iron ore and uranium, that the Karzai government was opening up.

However, China would not be averse to Pakistan hoping to play a key role in the Afghan affairs, whether through its Taliban subsidiaries like Mullah Omar or through the Haqqani network.

But the senior government officials also pointed out that despite a clear lack of interest in the resolution of bilateral issues, India was equally keen that no such thing happened that could upset the finely-wrought diplomatic balance that currently prevailed.

For example, when TV reports began to hysterically warn about China building a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo river (which becomes the Brahmaputra in India) some days ago, the Ministry of External Affairs quickly got External Affairs minister S M Krishna to issue a statement that said India had “ascertained from our own sources that this is a run of the river hydro-electric project which does not store water and will not adversely affect downstream areas.”

It turns out that this was the first time the external affairs ministry was using its own source material, such as from its own satellite mappings, to ascertain the facts.

It also turns out that the average flow of the Yarlung Tsangpo at Zangmu, where the Chinese dam is being built, is 78 billion cubic metres (bcm), while the average flow of the Brahmaputra when it floods the India-Bangladesh plain is 929 bcm. Water experts say this means that far from stopping the flow of water into India, most part of the Brahmaputra catchment actually falls within India (Arunachal Pradesh and Assam).

First Published: Fri, June 17 2011. 00:43 IST