The official media briefing by the Indian foreign ministry on the eve of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to India earlier this month offered little in the way of answers to the questions that so many Indians want answered.
The opening statement by the External Affair Ministry spokesperson, Vishnu Prakash, was full of staid diplomatic jargon such as ‘mutual bilateral relations’ and ‘convergence of interests.’ One senior journalist told me after the briefing that his comments were uncannily similar to remarks made ahead of Wen’s first trip to India as premier, in 2005.
The first question asked by an Indian journalist was on the alleged support and shelter given to some Pakistani terrorist groups and individuals in China. Would India take this up in bilateral discussions? And, unsurprisingly, the issue of China’s decision to issue stapled visas to Kashmiris also came up repeatedly, reflecting the importance of this issue to Indians.
Another interesting question that was asked was on the state of the Indo-China relationship, in light of the Chinese Ambassador’s comments in a speech at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry meeting, where he described the relationship between the neighbours as fragile. But the Indian side refused to comment on the statement, instead falling back on the oft-repeated line that relations are good.
And, asked whether there would be any discussion of the issue of China building dams on the Brahmaputra River—a move that might restrict the supply of water to India—the spokesperson gave a stock response that both countries will discuss all key issues.
But the jargon and diplomatic niceties can’t paper over the rude political reality that the relationship between the two giant neighbours is at its lowest ebb in years.
On the Indian side, there are plenty of concerns, not least China’s growing closeness with Pakistan.Indian journalists attending the briefing wonder, for example, why Wen was heading to Islamabad after finishing his three-day trip to New Delhi. After all, other world leaders who have come calling to India in recent months have avoided going to Pakistan, a move welcomed by India.
The growing ties between China and Pakistan are a matter of grave concern to India, and the policy of stapling visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir—a hot button issue for New Delhi—is seen by many here as indicating support for Pakistan’s argument that Jammu and Kashmir is disputed territory.
China, for its part, is unhappy with India’s continued support for Tibet and views this as interference in its internal affairs. India’s warming relations with the United States are also a matter of concern for China, which sees such moves as a deliberate attempt to marginalize it.
Wen’s trip was supposed to mark 60 years of India-China friendship, but despite the two countries sharing a 4000 kilometre border, neither side really trusts the other. The massive entourage of business leaders that Wen bought with him, therefore, was no substitute for substantive political progress—the two countries should be working not just on boosting trade, but improving bonds more broadly.
The questions asked by the journalists at the briefing are also on the minds of most Indians. Unless they’re addressed properly and sincerely, there’s no chance of India and China recapturing the bhai bhai (brothers in arms) sentiment that was coined in the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s as the two sought to work together on developing a new global order.