China and India Make Nice

India and China last week concluded their first, albeit limited war games near Kunming in China's Yunnan province. Although the eight-day exercise, which ended December 28, involved only two companies of about 100 soldiers from each side, it was an important development for world politics as well as South Asian ones.

Both emerging economic powerhouses have hitherto been known for their strained bilateral relations, beginning with the bloody Sino-Indian border conflict in 1962. Frequent Chinese incursions on the Indian and Bhutan borders and the Chinese cold response to the US’s acquiescence to Indian nuclear ambitions only made it worse. Of late, however, there is a conscious attempt to put the bitter past behind and the latest military diplomacy is regarded as part of that effort.

“The joint training is aimed at enhancing understanding and mutual trust,” said a statement issued by the foreign office of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense. "It is also aimed at deterring the 'three evil forces' - separatists, extremists and terrorists - and promoting the strategic partnership for peace and prosperity between China and India."

The drill, termed as "Hand-in-Hand 2007," focusing on counter-terrorism, was the outcome of an agreement on defense cooperation signed in May 2006 during a visit to China by former Indian defense minister Pranab Mukherjee. The details were worked out by military officials of both countries during meetings held in Kolkata and Kunming in recent weeks. China sent another positive signal last year by agreeing to reopen the strategic Nathu La pass to border trade, thereby accepting Sikkim as a part of India.

Given the bitter past relationships between the two countries, the joint exercise is largely cosmetic, in which neither of the participants were expected to show major military prowess. The main purpose was to build confidence between the two armies for further cooperation. But both India and China have certain other objectives which are no less important. The exercise is largely regarded as part of China’s charm offensive.

China wants to reassure others of its “peaceful intentions.” It also wants to train its young officers by giving them exposure of other armies and would like the increased interaction to reduce apprehensions about the ongoing modernization of the People’s Liberation Army.

Recent developments over Tibet have also prompted Beijing to seek somewhat improved relations with India. China has been concerned ever since the US Congress honored the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award conferred by US lawmakers. The Dalai Lama’s widely publicized visit to Capitol Hill was followed by a trip to Canada and a meeting in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

These visits have worried the Chinese, who see the widely-respected religious figure leader as once again trying to bring unwanted attention to Tibet. On the other hand, to Chinese comfort, New Delhi has always regarded Tibet as an autonomous region of China. Beijing was also reassured by the fact that soon after the Tibetan spiritual leader returned to India, ministers in the UPA government were asked not to attend a felicitation organized by the Gandhi Peace Foundation. However, now that the Dalai Lama is publicly hinting at choosing his successor, the Chinese would like a reiteration of New Delhi’s position on Tibet.

Though India’s relationship with China is quite complex, India in recent times has been trying to give it a positive thrust. China is an important player in regional and international politics. It is also a member of several crucial international organizations where India would need Chinese support or at least its indifference. For instance, India needs Chinese support in the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG). Last year China appeared to be uncomfortable with India's growing strategic ties with the US, cemented through a series of joint exercises including the huge five nation naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal this year. Hence there was a need for India to do something that could reduce Chinese apprehensions.

Now both sides have begun to realize that Indian and Chinese economic relations are no less important. India and China are the world’s fastest growing loarge economies. Their bilateral trade is likely to reach US$40 billion soon. Despite vast political differences, even the US has been doing business with China. Hence it was unwise for India to let strained political relations damage a burgeoning economic relationship.

The growing Indian and Chinese economies require huge energy resources. The two countries’ energy companies have recently been competing against each other. Chinese companies have been more successful in clinching deals across the planet, but this mutual rivalry has jacked up prices considerably. China realizes its companies have paid much for the resources than they were worth. Two years after they ended their rivalry, India and China are now beginning to give shape to cooperation in oil and gas exploration. Now Indian and Chinese officials are planning a roadmap to jointly stake rights to oil and gas assets in various parts of the world.

India has been somewhat successful in its effort to improve bilateral relationship through several top-level political exchanges. Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance in the Lok Sabha, or India Parliament as well as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, visited Beijing in October. Preparations are currently on for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s China visit from January 13-16.

Also, Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon recently visited Beijing for a third round of strategic dialogue and agreed to speed resolution of the decades-old border dispute between the two countries, which began in 1962 over a disputed region of the Himalayan border in what the Indians call Arunchal Pradesh and the Chinese call South Tibet. This talk covered the gamut of bilateral, regional and global issues besides giving finishing touches to the agenda for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit.

At present, both India and China appear keen to at least remove acrimony from the relationship so that their economic and sometimes political interests do not suffer. This desire has restrained India from sharply reacting to recent Chinese incursions, though it has kept an eye on developments in the border area and has moved a battalion from Jammu and Kashmir to West Bengal. Indian leaders now find the Chinese more accommodating and see a possibility of sorting out the border dispute.

Though the major issues bedeviling Indo-Chinese relations will only be solved at the political level, joint military exercises will create conducive environment and help to reduce the ill-will. In any case a cooperative relationship between these armies would be required even when the border disputes are fully settled. The debilitating large-scale conflict, won by the Chinese, took place at altitudes over 14,000 feet (4,300 meters). Presumably neither side wants to face anything like that again.