So what exactly did the two sides talk about? Judging by their statements, the trip was all about trade. Wen, who last visited India five years ago, brought with him one of the largest ever contingents of Chinese business leaders—the Chinese delegation of about 400 businesspeople significantly outnumbered the CEO entourage of Obama (215), Sarkozy (60) and Cameron (40).
During Wen’s visit, an agreement was signed to ratchet up bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2015 from the current $60 billion. The question is, though, whether future trade will be more equitable—India has so far posted recording a $30-billion deficit this year, and Delhi resents the fact that despite the booming commercial links between the two countries, it’s failing to reap the full benefits due largely to lack of access to China’s lucrative pharmaceutical and IT markets.
But even if trade does improve, the numbers will ultimately mean little if the two countries can’t sit down and hammer out some kind of agreement over their political differences. Beijing is wary of Delhi's growing strategic nexus with Washington and other Asian nations, while Delhi is concerned about Beijing's expanding footprint in South Asia, including its relationship with Pakistan.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
India has some reason to be concerned. China is constructing ports in Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka as well as railway lines right up to the China-Nepal border. It also has plans to build a railway line in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and is suspected of helping Pakistan in its quest to bolster its nuclear and missile capabilities. (In response, India has been moving to counter with its own overtures to Japan, Korea and Vietnam).
To compound Delhi’s fears, Wen followed up his visit to India with a trip to Pakistan, making him the only one of the key world leaders to head there after an India visit in the past couple of months. While there, Wen signed trade deals worth $24 billion as well as an agreement to co-operate with Islamabad on missile development, cross-border infrastructure, energy and technology. China, Wen noted, wants to deepen its strategic partnership with Pakistan in view of the ‘complex and fluid international and regional circumstances.’
All this said, it may be wrong to be too gloomy about Wen’s visit to India. After all, the trip was never intended to usher in dramatic changes in bilateral relations, and was instead intended more as a confidence building measure to soothe Delhi’s ruffled feathers.
The emphasis on commerce (some would say overemphasis), is therefore perhaps understandable in light of China’s searching in a post-financial crisis world for new markets—and with 1.2 billion people, India is a gargantuan market indeed.
With distrust between Asia’s giants so deep-rooted, and with fundamental historical and border tensions still unresolved, a ‘stabilizing’ rather than Obamaesque transformative visit is perhaps the most that could realistically have been expected.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist. She writes on politics, lifestyle trends, the environment and gender issues for leading news syndicates, newspapers and publications including The Guardian, Inter Press Service (IPS) and Asia Times, among others.