It’s been a busy week of hosting for the Chinese leadership. As I mentioned, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have been in town (with discussions on North Korea taking up much of their time), while yesterday, Indian President Pratibha Patil arrived in Beijing to meet with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao.
According to reports, a host of issues were raised, while bilateral agreements on civil administration, sports and visas were also signed. It was the issue of visas that stoked tensions between the two nations last year, when it was learned that China had begin issuing separate visas for Kashmiris. The provocative change was introduced last May, apparently because China sees Kashmir as disputed territory; the decision incensed India.
With media reports about Chinese incursions into the disputed border area of Ladakh, some analysts (and certainly the media) felt the situation had deteriorated enough to at least warrant discussion of whether some sort of conflict between the two was possible.
I asked Sanjaya Baru, a consulting fellow to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, for his take on relations and whether they were as bad as they appeared to some. IISS will be hosting its annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore next weekend. I’ll be attending the conference and hope to catch up with Baru in person then. But in the meantime he told me:
‘India and China have a very complex bilateral relationship that’s shaped by history as much as it is now increasingly shaped by economics and geo-politics. The relationship has seen its highs and lows in the past two decades, but it has never become too difficult to manage—the leaders of both countries have been careful not to let differences be blown out of proportion.’
Baru agreed that last year was a tough one for bilateral ties, especially on the back of what he says was Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s concern over China’s ‘new assertiveness’. But he told me that the Copenhagen Climate Change Conferencewas a turning point in ties.
‘India took China's side rather than back the US and EU and in so doing earned China's gratitude,’ he told me. ‘China reciprocated by choosing to address some of India's long standing complaints about China's trade policies.’
Meanwhile, the two nations in April agreed to establish a hotline connecting their leaders’ offices directly (the first time in recent years that India has made such an agreement with another country), while Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao the same month pledged the two nations would increase student exchanges.
So, were the suggestions of impending skirmishes—or worse—mostly media hype? Certainly the Indian government at the time sensibly tried to tamp down excessive media talk of tensions.
‘The media in both countries certainly hyped up the issue of military conflict and tension. However, it’s true that incursions on to "India's side" by Chinese troops had sharply increased in 2009. In India the media hype was partly a by-product of intense competition between privately owned TV news channels—anything sensational sells—while in China there may have been government prodding since Chinese media is state-controlled.’
Looking ahead, Baru told me he felt the most likely future sources of tension would be issues relating to acquisition and utilisation of natural resourcessuch aswater and China's ‘growing presence and investment’in India's immediate neighbourhood.
But although Baru was upbeat about prospects for peaceful ties between the two, largely because of the twocountries’ ‘wise and mature’ leaderships and a need for both to focus on their domestic economies, he added that as China becomes even stronger that further tensions could still develop, ‘especially if China becomes more nationalistic and does not become a more open and democratic country’.