Copyright – The International Herald Tribune
During his visit last week, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao dazzled Indians with the oblique diplomacy at which the Chinese excel. Resisting pressure to proclaim China’s recognition of India’s 1975 annexation of the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, he nevertheless delighted his hosts by quietly handing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a map that showed Sikkim as just another Indian state.
Indians are hoping that similar sophistication also explains Wen’s refusal to commit himself to India’s claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. All he would say in this context was that “China understands and supports India’s aspirations to play an active role in the UN and international affairs.” Jubilant listeners interpreted this as effective support, arguing that only Japan’s embarrassing candidature prevented an explicit endorsement.
More likely the Chinese are waiting to see which way the Indian cat jumps in the emerging pattern of alignments. The stakes were underlined when the United States, which has been wooing India with the prize of global status as a future counterpoise to China, pressed its suit during Wen’s visit with the offer of a range of military network systems of far greater consequence than the controversial fighter jets promised to both India and Pakistan.
China’s objective is to redraw Asia’s strategic map so that a booming but friendly India replaces Japan as the other regional pole, and also supplements, if not replaces, the United States as a virtually bottomless market for inexpensive Chinese consumer goods.
Hence a $20 billion trade target for 2008, rising to $30 billion by 2010, that would oust the United States as India’s largest trading partner. The intense interest Wen, himself an engineer, took in India’s information-technology industry confirmed plans to develop former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji’s imaginative proposal for a marriage between Indian software and Chinese hardware, presumably one day to mount an Asian challenge to the West’s industrial supremacy.
There is no denying the temptation for India in this replay of cold war games. The “guiding principles” for settling boundaries could pave the way for peace along the long Himalayan border by swapping disputed territories over which the two neighbors fought a brief but bitter war in 1962. Moreover, their new “strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity” acknowledged parity between the two sides, whereas in the past China treated India as a regional power, important in South Asia maybe, but of no more global consequence than Pakistan, which has one-fifth India’s area and one-seventh the population.
Though the partnership arrangement’s content and purpose have not been defined, Indians see it as setting an Asian imprimatur on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s highly gratifying description of India as “a major world power in the 21st century.” It is a moot point whether Wen would have been so forthcoming without this earlier U.S. overture.
Despite last week’s bonhomie, India remains wary of Chinese moves and maneuvers in South Asia and surrounding seas. Continuing military (including nuclear) help for Pakistan, where Wen stopped off before flying to Bangalore to start his Indian tour, remains a sore point, the $250 million deep-sea port China is building at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea being a particular cause for anxiety. When ready, it will enable the Chinese, already entrenched in Myanmar across the Bay of Bengal and with a surveillance station in the Coco Islands, to restrict India from both flanks.
China’s pointed cordiality toward King Gyanendra of Nepal is another irritant. In contrast, the United States is as severe with the king as India is.
Similar rivalry in the 1950’s enabled India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to hold the world’s spotlight. A revival of heady diplomacy is a reminder that the Indian Dream is not so much to exercise world power as to be hailed as a world power. Having said goodbye to Wen, India’s external affairs minister, Natwar Singh, flew to Washington for parleys with Rice. Pakistan’s strongman president, Pervez Musharraf, will be in New Delhi this weekend, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan a few weeks later.
The lesson of all this shuttling is that in the emerging Great Game, India will neither forsake its American alliance for a Chinese version of the Concert of Asia, nor help the United States to contain China. A John Foster Dulles among the neoconservatives would undoubtedly find this neutrality immoral.
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, a former editor of The Statesman in India, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.