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Asia’s Fragile Special Relationship

NEW DELHI – “Tzu-Ch’in asked Tzu-Kung a few questions; Tzu-Kung answered: …Our Master gets things (done) by being cordial, frank, courteous, temperate, deferential. That is our…way.” But will Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao live up to that standard, as conveyed in the Analects of Confucius, on his current visit to India?

The world has a variety of “special relationships.” The United States’ partnership with the United Kingdom is one forged in war – and a pillar of the West for more than a half-century. The US-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War era was special in that relations between those two countries shaped the fate of the world until the USSR imploded. The US and China are said to be forging a new special relationship.

But, in looking toward the future of Asia – and, indeed, the future of world diplomacy – it is the relationship between the world’s two most populous countries and largest emerging economies, India and China, which will increasingly set the global agenda. Japan’s change of military doctrine for the first time since the start of the Cold War – a shift that implicitly makes China the greatest threat – suggests that the Chinese leadership needs to take a hard look at its regional grand strategy.

Wen’s priorities for his trip to India are clear: trade, security, and, far behind, the territorial disputes between the two countries. Such an approach might make tactical diplomatic sense, as long as there is no background clatter. But it lacks a sense of strategic urgency, which, given rising international tensions across Asia, amounts to a serious strategic blunder.

The sources of those tensions are clear: North Korea’s shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and its flaunting of a modern, previously unknown, nuclear plant; the US-led armada now cruising through the South China and Yellow Sea; and China’s claim that the South China Sea is an area of vital national interest akin to Tibet.

In its bilateral relations with India, China’s shift in focus from its claims on the Northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh to Jammu and Kashmir is enormously worrisome. Indeed, around Gilgit in Kashmir, China’s People’s Liberation Army has greatly enhanced its troop presence. Small wonder that, on the eve of Wen’s visit, China’s ambassador in New Delhi finds relations between the two countries to be “very fragile, easily damaged, and difficult to repair.”

But, despite all this diplomatic friction, Wen’s entourage for his visit is dominated by a large business delegation. Currently, both countries’ economies are thrusting confidently forward; both are thirsty for more and bigger markets.

India is growing at an annual rate of around 9%; China at around 10%. So the opportunities for trade between the two are certainly enormous. But, for both countries, economic growth is not hurdle-free.

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India’s economy is continuing to grow, but faces rising inflation, fiscal and current-account deficits, a slowdown in agricultural growth, and infrastructure bottlenecks. China’s problems arise mainly from widening income disparities, which are inciting hitherto unheard of levels of labor unrest – though this should not be viewed as a precursor to change of the sort that marked the rise of the Solidarity trade union and the end of communism in Poland.

But labor unrest and the desire to maintain 10% growth suggest that China should be taking the lead in ensuring peace on the Korean peninsula and preventing other political developments from derailing its economy. After all, as the Chinese leadership knows, only continued strong growth will provide the government with the wriggle room it needs to begin to revalue the renminbi.

Revaluation of its currency is necessary in part because the undervalued renminbi has become yet another a source of friction in Asia, as many in the region now believe the Chinese are using their currency as a “policy weapon.” To untangle the complex policy web surrounding the renminbi’s value will demand greater regional stability, not less.

Yet China’s international grand strategy does not appear to reflect this. Instead, it remains focused on Northeast Asia, Tibet, Taiwan, and on its aspirations to move into the Indian Ocean, that great global highway of trade in the twenty-first century.

China’s leaders recognize that their country needs time, space, and peace for economic development. Yet their pursuit of a dominant position on the strategic chokepoints in the Indian Ocean undermines these goals by raising tensions not only with India, but with Asia’s other powers and the US. Their focus on inhibiting India seems particularly misguided, given that China’s core interests (Tibet, Taiwan, and the heartland of the Chinese mainland) are far beyond the reach of most of India’s military capabilities.

By contrast, India’s most important national security concerns – the unsettled border between the two countries, and Beijing’s ties with Pakistan, which often operates as a Chinese surrogate – are closely connected to China: Both factors are directly linked to China’s perceived threat to India’s Himalayan territory and its rapid development of strategic infrastructure in that region. India’s concerns also focus on China’s ongoing supply of arms, including missiles and nuclear weapons technology, to Pakistan.

No amount of discussion over trade can obscure the true issues of vital concern between China and India. China may take comfort in remaining focused on non-core issues, because such an approach suggests tactical cooperation with India. That is a convenient international ploy, but it leaves the sources of bilateral discord unattended.

The idea of collaboration only in areas of interest to China while neglecting issues of substance to India is untenable, even in the short term. Indeed, neglect of the core disputes is what has resulted in the relationship’s “extreme fragility.” India cannot and will not abandon its territorial sovereignty, or its pursuit of secure land borders or a greater balance in trade.

These are challenges that cry out for clarity, not diplomatic fudges. But surely two great and ancient civilizations can find their way to the type of “cordial, frank, courteous, temperate, deferential…” relations that would have pleased Confucius.

Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister, and defense minister, is the author of Jinnah: India – Partition – Independence.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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