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Iraq tops China talks agenda

New Delhi, March 23: The impact of the US-initiated war in Iraq will be in focus when for the first time India and China hold a policy planning dialogue this month. The dates, though, are yet to be finalised.

The director-general of China’s policy planning division, Cui Tiankai, will lead the team from Beijing. Additional secretary (policy planning) in the foreign ministry Rakesh Kumar will lead the Indian delegation.

The proposed dialogue indicates not only both countries’ desire to engage with each other at various levels but also their keenness to share views on important developments in the region and the world.

Though important bilateral issues will be part of the discussion, the two sides will assess the situation in Iraq and how it is likely to evolve now that the US military action has started.

India and China have similar positions on Iraq. Both have shown restraint in their criticism of the US, though both have emphasised the supremacy of the UN and the need to peacefully resolve the crisis.

While India has adopted a “middle path”, China, though a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has not taken as tough a line as France and never threatened to use its veto if the US was to push for a second resolution.

But there are dissimilarities in their stand as well. India’s restraint stems from its current excellent relations with Washington. It does not want to criticise the US to the extent of affecting bilateral ties.

China, on the other hand, has maintained restraint because it does not unnecessarily want to open a new front with the US. In the aftermath of 9/11, Beijing has been watching with apprehension the US’ growing presence.

Though conspiracy theorists in China believe this is part of the US plan to “encircle China”, the majority view in Beijing has, so far, been supportive of a stand that shows China’s restraint on the Iraqi crisis more than pro-activism.

Moreover, China’s pragmatic assessment shows the US is bent on armed action against Saddam Hussein. So the dominant view is to maintain a stoic silence and guard one’s national interest rather than adopt a tough public posture that is unable to prevent a war.

Both India and China are interested in getting a substantial share of the reconstruction pie after the war in Iraq. But they are also concerned how the war will affect the region and the future of oil supply from that region.

India and China began a security dialogue about four years ago to understand and appreciate each other’s concern better. The policy-planning dialogue will now give both sides an opportunity to draw the big picture, not only of the region and the world, but also of future ties between the two countries.

Attempts will be made to identify areas where the two Asian giants can work in close cooperation as partners.

The meeting will also give the countries the opportunity to discuss some important visits from India to China, which includes those by defence minister George Fernandes and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

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