It is rare that a summit between two countries is held twice in the same year. Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing came only about five months since their meeting in New Delhi in May this year. What were the compelling circumstances that might have driven Dr. Singh to proceed for another summit? It can be easily perceived that the visit was driven by domestic political factors and his desire to further engage the new political leadership of China. He wanted to have a last shot at improving relations with Pakistan and China before he retires from politics as the case seems to be when India goes for general elections in 2014. He also advanced his summit with Russia that was due in end November or early December. The only possible regional and international context could be that the Emperor of Japan would be visiting India in end November (a very significant visit since it is not common for the Emperor to undertake such visits) and therefore the visit to Beijing, most likely the last one, could also be interpreted as a kind of balancing exercise. It also needs to be remembered that Dr Singh had also a meeting with US President Barack Obama in end September and some of the agreements concluded with Washington especially on defence cooperation may have caused consternation among the Chinese leadership.
The Joint Statements issued at the end of summits are also, in some ways, a good barometer of what transpired during the meeting. What is included in the joint statement could be as important or even more significant as what is left out. This time the joint statement was somewhat pithy compared to the previous one in May. While the May summit covered a broad expanse of the issues, this time it was largely restricted to bilateral issues with limited reference to the regional and international issues. But more than the joint statement, it was Manmohan Singh’s address at the Central Party School in Beijing that underlined the philosophical underpinnings behind mutual Sino-Indian engagement. However, that does not mean that there were no practical considerations for his visit. With an eye on coming elections, Singh was more keen to address some of the contentious bilateral issues like maintaining peace and tranquillity along the LAC, stapled visas, sharing of river waters, and concerns about the ever increasing trade imbalance with China.
From the Indian perspective, the single most important achievement of the visit has been the signing of Border Development Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). There are some thinkers of the conservative school of thought who feel that there are many ambiguities in some of the clauses of BDCA agreement and how will this agreement be of any practical use when the previous agreements of 1993, 1996 and even 2005 have not been able to maintain peace and tranquillity along the LAC. On the other hand, largely the official perspective is that it is a satisfactory agreement and it would be conducive to avoiding incidents between Indian and Chinese armed forces along the border/LAC. It is also being said that the BDCA was signed despite the opposition to it by some quarters of the PLA which is being perceived as becoming somewhat more assertive in the current power configuration in China.
Holding of the much stalled joint counter terrorism exercise between both the militaries in November is another positive step towards building mutual confidence. Regular defence exchanges would also promote military to military relationship.
Other than the BDCA, India could not get much satisfaction from China on remaining issues. Though the MOU on Strengthening Cooperation on Trans-Border Rivers was signed yet it does not really address Indian concerns regarding building of dams on the upper reaches of Brahmaputra/Yarlung Tsangpo River. Yes, the only saving grace was that period of flow of rivers on which hydrological data would be shared has been expanded. Another point on which India can draw limited succour from the MOU is that both sides agreed to ‘exchange views on other issues of mutual interest’. Further, there is recognition by China that ‘trans-border rivers and related natural resources and the environment are assets of immense value to the socio-economic development of all riparian countries’. But so far China has not concluded any agreement with any down-stream nation whether in South East Asia mainland or Central Asian Republics on sharing of river waters. There is a general belief that China is unlikely enter into any river waters sharing agreement with India or for that matter any other country any time soon.
A sore point with India has been the issue of stapled visas to its citizens hailing from Arunachal Pradesh. Raking up of this controversy just before Dr. Singh’s visit also prevented India from reaching an accord with China over liberalised visa regime for Chinese citizens visiting India. Given the past and current trajectory of connected events and issues, there is a general understanding that China is unlikely to change its stance. A measure like disallowing liberal visas to Chinese is unlikely to affect China in any substantial way. However, as a riposte the much ritualised mention of Tibet as part of China or what is referred to as ‘One China policy’ has been absent from the joint statement this time like it was in the May Summit and earlier summits of 2011 and 2010. Though such an omission does not mean that India has fundamentally changed its policy yet the perception is that this could be used as an indirect pressure point.
Also, not much headway was made with China on India’s concerns about rising trade imbalance with Beijing. India has been looking for some major investments by China in India’s infrastructure sector and more access to Indian IT and pharmaceutical sectors exports to Beijing. However, the forthcoming India-China Strategic Economic Dialogue in November/December 2013 is expected to go into the connected issues and promote a balanced growth of trade through ‘specific projects and initiatives’.
Further, the burgeoning trade deficit with China also moves India to look at China’s proposal for a bilateral Regional Trade Arrangement (RTA) very critically as under the current circumstances it is unlikely to benefit India. Similarly, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is also being viewed as another version of RTA by India though eventually it may join the grouping after some tough negotiations. Another emerging economic grouping in Asia-Pacific is the American-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which is being offered as alternative or in addition to RCEP. However, some of the clauses of TPP are very stringent and thus it may not be viewed by developing economies like India as growth friendly.
The question of establishing a BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Economic Corridor was for the first time discussed in the May 2013. In the earlier years, it was a Track II initiative that did not gain much traction. India has concerns about both security and economic issues as the proposed corridor would pass through some of the sensitive North Eastern states of India. Such a corridor is not expected to be realised in a hurry though the economic benefits especially to Manipur and south Assam may outweigh any perceived security concerns.
The regional issues, especially the evolving situation in Afghanistan was absent from the joint statement this time while in the last summit two paras of the joint statement were devoted to the same. The joint dialogue between China and India on Afghanistan was for the first time started this year with meetings of high level officials and further discussed during the May 2013 summit. Though India and China share many concerns about post-2014 Afghan scenario yet that does not mean that China has stopped looking at Afghanistan through Pakistan’s prism. As mentioned earlier, India hopes to moderate Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan through its engagement with China. And China is also taking a broader perspective on the evolving scenario in Afghanistan and is engaging many regional powers and Afghanistan’s neighbours for ushering in peace and stability in the war-torn country.
Overall, Singh’s visit could be said to be moderately successful. The visit was perhaps designed to convey a larger political message that without peace along the borders there would be no end to turbulent relationship between the two nations and the prospects of an Asian Century would remain elusive. Therefore, the Prime Minister’s remarks at the Central Party School need to be studied with the above aspects in mind.