The choreography preceding the visits of Chinese dignitaries to India seem to follow a broad script. First there are the over-hyped media reports hinting that the infuriatingly complex border dispute may be within smelling distance of a settlement. Second comes a flood of inanities from the People's Daily or from an officially-worded 'interview' of the chief guest advising both countries to 'shoulder a common responsibility to push forward the process of building a multi-polar world', and so on. Finally, Beijing's Indian cheerleaders make their entry to tell the beautiful people that an India-China tango would become the envy of the world.
The foreplay of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's three-day visit to India has been no different. South Block has let it be known that a giant step towards the resolution of the border dispute may be taken with the agreement on the 'guiding principles' for a settlement. In his interview to PTI, Wen Jiabao informed us that the two countries have 'reached an important consensus that they should handle the relations from a high strategic ground, bearing in mind the larger picture.'
China's understanding of the 'high strategic ground' has always proved difficult to comprehend but India has chosen to underplay the fact that any 'guiding principles' agreement has not been preceded by complete agreement on what constitutes the line of actual control. China has so far refused to exchange maps of its existing position in Aksai Chin, despite India being ready with its version. This would prompt the conclusion that any agreement on 'guiding principles' would be purely cosmetic. China, it would seem, will not be averse to keeping the settlement of the boundary dispute in abeyance till a more opportune moment.
Nor does the unwillingness of India to raise the awkward features of its relation with China stop here. It has become customary for China to set the pace of bilateral relations. From the time Mao Zedong smiled enigmatically at the Indian ambassador in the mid-Seventies to Deng Xiaoping's famous interview suggesting that differences must await another generation for resolution, it is China that invariably makes the first move. India is reduced to responding.
This time too Wen Jiabao bowled a veritable googly by asserting that the creation of a free trade area between India and China had become a 'logical agenda' in view of the tenfold increase in bilateral trade in the past decade. Whether the Chinese initiative owes anything to the United States of America's offer to transform India into a world power is a matter of conjecture. However, the timing of the offer seems to be linked with China's anxiety to project itself as a world power that values economics above politics. Since the US discovery of India as a potential strategic partner is not unrelated to Washington's concerns over China's possible emergence as the dominant power in Asia, it would be safe to conclude that China will leave no stone unturned to reassure New Delhi that it has nothing to fear, apart from legitimate commercial competition, from Beijing.
There will be many takers for Wen Jiabao's assertion in Pakistan that China poses no threat to anyone. That may be true for the short-term. However, it is worth considering the rationale behind China scuttling the moves at the United Nations to enlarge the security council. Why is China anxious to prevent Japan and India assuming leadership roles in Asia'
It is also difficult for China to gloss over its deep involvement in Pakistan. Wen Jiabao's India visit will be preceded by his three-day visit to Pakistan where he will warn his hosts of the adverse consequences of cosying up excessively to the US. China, in fact, has crafted its relations with Pakistan quite adroitly. Its pretence of non-interference in the internal affairs of that country, its indulgent wink at Pakistan's complicity in the export of nuclear know-how to countries like Iran, Libya and North Korea, and its constant supplies of military hardware have enhanced its stature in Islamabad. Given the fierce mood of anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world, it is regarded by many in Pakistan as a more acceptable ally than the US.
The tragedy is that India is wary of raising China's involvement in Pakistan and, for that matter, other strategic questions relating to the neighbourhood, with Beijing. In dealing with China, Indian diplomacy has suffered from a strange diffidence. India has often given the impression that it is over-awed by China and anxious to go to any extent to please it. The celebration of the foreign minister, K. Natwar Singh, of 50 years of the disastrous Panchsheel agreement last year was a grotesque example of kowtowing. Far from enhancing Sino-Indian friendship, such craven genuflection merely reinforces existing Chinese perceptions of India as a spineless giant.
Part of this owes to the fact that China has successfully built up an impressive constituency of Sinophiles who count for a lot in the decision-making structures. At one time only the communists and the Maoist fringe constituted the pro-China lobby in India. Today, they have conveniently taken a backseat to economists, corporate lobbyists and members of the Congress. Jairam Ramesh, a Congress member of parliament of distinction, who wrote a series of articles last year in this newspaper overplaying China's nebulous historical links with India, has now promoted the concept of 'Chindia' which denotes the synergy between the two big Asian powers. Indeed, the small group of professional Sinologists in India ' mainly academics and retired diplomats ' convey the unmistakable impression that they are more concerned with China's interests than with India. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, sanctified this intellectual slavishness last year when he praised China's economic achievements, adding that 'I think that's the role model we have to look at'. It is astonishing that the prime minister did not weigh the significance of his words.
One of the primary casualties of this fawning over China has been our traditional links with Tibet, the 'autonomous region' of China whose deep ties with India were abruptly snapped following the communist takeover. True, India has given sanctuary to the dalai lama and other Tibetans fleeing communist oppression. Yet, over the years the Tibetan refugees have been converted into non-people. Notionally, India retains a so-called Tibet card to play against China when expedient. However, sheer non-use has made this hand redundant. India has not even made a pretence of being sympathetic to those fighting human rights abuses and the demographic transformation of Tibet. Next week we are certain to find the police in both Bangalore and New Delhi using extremely heavy-handed measures to ensure that Wen Jiabao is not embarrassed by Tibetan demonstrators.
Being an important neighbour and an emerging military and economic power, it is important that India engages actively with China. However, it is equally important that this relationship is tempered with realism and an understanding of the implications of China's rapid rise on our neighbourhood.It is possible to admire China and at the same time be extremely critical of the ruthless single-mindedness and lack of humanity that accompanies its quest for its objectives. Unfortunately, as things stand, the pace of bilateral relationship is being determined by China on its own terms. An independent Indian perspective is sorely lacking in the conduct of Sino-Indian diplomacy. We paid for this very grievously in 1962 and we may have to pay another heavy price in the next two decades.