Features | Politics | East Asia

Wen’s Stabilizing India Trip

With strategic tensions between China and India still high, it’s not surprising Wen Jiabao chose to focus on trade issues instead.

By Neeta Lal for

With his tripto Indialast week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was just the latest in a formidable list of political leaders who have set foot in the country in recent months, following visits by US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Wen’s trip was in part to mark 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two Asian giants, who were at war as recently as 1962 over the possession of the Aksai Chin region and the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Since this clash, the world’s two most populous countries have remained at loggerheads and share a deep mutual distrust. But while ties between the two have long been icy due to territorial, geopolitical and trade differences, bilateral relations have been particularly fraught over the past year or so.

Last year, for example, Beijing objected to visits by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its own (indeed, China has also long expressed its displeasure over India’s granting of a home to the Tibetan monk).

More recently, in August this year, India cancelled defence exchanges with China after the latter refused to issue a visa to a Kashmir-based Indian general. India, meanwhile, has been upset over the Chinese practice of issuing stapled visas to the Kashmiri people since last year.

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Against this complex backdrop, it was no surprise to hear China's envoy to India, Zhang Yan, tell reporters ahead of Wen's visit that ‘Relations are very fragile, very easy to be damaged and very difficult to repair. Therefore they need special care…’

Yet even though Wen downplayed the competition between the two Asian giants by stating on arrival that ‘there’s enough space in the world for the development of both China and India,’ his soothing words weren’t matched by any discernible progress in strategic ties.

This failure was underscored by the fact that the Chinese refused to address any of India's core strategic concerns, be it over the border dispute, the recognition of Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India, Pakistan’s alleged role in instigating terrorism against India or the asymmetrical trade equation between the two countries. 

Rather than tackle head on the key issue of the disputed border area of Arunachal Pradesh—which China has taken to calling ‘South Tibet’—Wen instead pushed the dispute to merely one consideration in a 10-pronged strategy to improve China-India relations over the long term. India responded in kind, refusing to include its usual support for China's sovereignty over Tibet and the so-called ‘One China Principle’ in the joint statement.

In addition, Wen also resisted India's efforts to secure any reference to Pakistan's alleged role in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai in the statement, and there was also no significant shift in Beijing's opposition to India's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

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.

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).

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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.