Xi visit to India: Symbolism should not score over substance

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Xi Jinping
The focus of the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping later this week should be on tangibles - on mutually beneficial diversification and intensification of economic and cultural ties, tapping of all possible complementarities through imaginative arrangements and programmes. Not on political documentation, which there is a surfeit of already.

This is the conclusion that any reasonable student of India-China ties would reach from a little reflection on the relationship, which leaves one wondering about (the reasons for) the extreme volatility, and the mismatch between rhetoric and reality, of India-China relations. Both questions remain unexamined largely so they must be asked now, even if it be in the naïve child-like 'but the Emperor has no clothes on' vein.

Pre-1962, relations went from a euphoric 'bhai-bhai' phase to a 'bye-bye' mood within a remarkably short span of less than a decade. In the post-1976 period too, one of avowed 'normalisation' of relations beginning with the bold, ice-breaking, visit of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in February 1979 (as foreign minster), there was an early setback when he was forced to cut that 'patch-up' trip short because of no thought being spared by the hosts about the sensitivities of their guests in deciding to "teach a lesson" to Vietnam (as to India earlier) while he was still on Chinese soil.

The same lack of sensitivity was displayed in conduct of a nuclear test during president R. Venkataraman's visit in 1992 (which was the first Head of State level visit between the two countries ever) after 'normalisation' had been put back on track, and prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's landmark 1988 visit had placed relations on a higher trajectory.

Nor are fluctuations a thing of the past, of the days gone by (prior to institutionalization of State functioning into a routinised, non-charismatic and unwhimsical mode in China, post-Deng Xiaoping) -- in April 2008, the Chinese Foreign Office thought it fit to summon the Indian (lady) Ambassador in Beijing at 2 a.m. to register its concern over a security threat to its embassy premises in New Delhi (following an attack by Tibetan activists the previous day, even though no damage had been caused). This with the country which was, at that time, already a declared "strategic and cooperative partner" for three years!

Likewise, the remarks of the Chinese MOFA spokesperson registering a strong protest against primwe minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Arunachal Pradesh in 2009 did not hesitate to gratuitously refer to him as "an Indian leader" (no more than a year and a half after his "successful" 2008 visit, during which a "Shared Vision for the 21st Century" document had been signed). Clearly, there is something in (the DNA of) Chinese diplomacy and psyche that impels the Chinese side to rock the boat every now and then, unmindful of the impact on the other side.

But what of the written word, it might be asked-the argument that the tendency for volatile fluctuations only underlines the need for formal agreements etc. to document (the content of) discussions and minimize misunderstandings. The record in this respect is not shining either, unfortunately.

Panchsheel, the very first agreement between the two countries, loftily propounded the "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence" as a model for inter-state relations but became a laughing stock world-wide after its cardinal tenet - "non-aggression" - was trampled over by one proponent over the other. Its key weakness - of there being no way of ensuring observance of its unexceptionable provisions in practice or seeking remedy against transgressions - continues to mark bilateral documentation to this day.

Cut to 2005, when the two countries declared themselves to be in a "Strategic and Cooperative Partnership" and concluded the much lauded "Agreement on Political Parameters & Guiding Principles for Settlement of the Boundary Question" (which provided that that the boundary "should be along well defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features" and that both countries would "safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas" while reaching a "boundary settlement").

This was widely understood (in India-including by seasoned China experts, not just laymen) to be presaging Chinese readiness to eventually drop their claims in the Eastern sector (covering Arunachal Pradesh) as part of a package deal involving Indian concessions in the Western sector (Aksai Chin) and finally arrive at a settlement before long".

But these expectations were soon belied-by Chinese backtracking. The very next year, the Chinese Ambassador was heard publicly asserting claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh on the eve of President Hu Jintao's visit - a far cry from hopes of a final settlement on the "boundary question" that set the clock back (since the claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh meant that it was, in the Chinese perception being projected, not a matter of alignment and/or marginal adjustment of the "boundary" but of negotiation of territory in the entire "border" area).

The justification for the "Strategic and Cooperative Partnership" with China (anomalously concluded ahead of the "Strategic and Global Partnership" of India with Japan, which came only in December 2006) was never clear, none having been advanced. Prima facie, there is no case for that maladroit move when there has been no 'delivery' on either of the two vital concerns of the nation vis-a-vis China: a settlement on the border and defanging of the Sino-Pak nexus. Continuing the description "constructive and cooperative partnership" (without capital letters, most importantly, i.e. without a label directed at others), as already agreed to just two years earlier during the visit of PM Vajpayee, would have served India better.

The past pattern of going along with the Chinese on abstract formulations in political documents needs to be put on hold until the practical import of the inherited baggage has been clarified in tangible terms (and translated into unambiguous specifics). It is important that the (previous) talk be walked first before there is any further 'talk' putting forward fresh political understandings long on generalities (that invariably lend themselves to conflicting interpretations) and short on specifics.

The huge corpus of political documents (Agreements/Communiques/Declarations/Statements) signed by the two countries in recent years abounds in commitments to a pot pourri of principles and pious sentiments. It is, however, not marked by meaningful action on the ground commensurate with that voluminous verbiage.

Sardar Patel's prescient letter of 1950 to Jawaharlal Nehru commends itself at this juncture in the nation's relationship with its redoubtable neighbor to the north, when 'normalization' of relations is still a 'work in progress', as a model of realism and a safeguard against allowing symbolism to score over substance.

IANS

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