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Tread with care

This one promises to be tricky—and occasionally prickly, too. There is a renewed spirit of bonhomie in official Indian circles about China—and with good reason.

Print Edition: February 10, 2008

Let’s not mince words: Singh with Chinese PM Wen Jiabao
Singh with Chinese PM Wen Jiabao
This one promises to be tricky—and occasionally prickly, too. There is a renewed spirit of bonhomie in official Indian circles about China—and with good reason. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed out to his hosts in Beijing, it wasn’t that long ago, in the first half of the 18th century, that India and China boasted of economies that were as large, if not larger, than that of the whole of Europe. Economists and crystal ball gazers are almost unanimous that old balance will be restored in the course of this century. Trade between the two countries is galloping ahead. The target of $10 billion by 2008 was achieved two years ahead of schedule and the 2010 target of $40 billion is expected to be crossed this year itself. The revised target: $60 billion in two years. China is already India’s largest trading partner and India is China’s 10th largest.

Then, India and China (and Brazil and South Africa) have, through their unofficial “alliance” at the World Trade Organisation, successfully stymied the carefully crafted plan of the G-8 to push through a discriminatory and one-sided international trade pact that would have ensured western hegemony in economic matters.

So, obviously, there’s great mutual benefit in walking down the path of friendship and cooperation. But here, we must add caveat. Friendship and cooperation are all very fine, but they cannot be one-way streets. The Chinese leadership is playing a game of cooperation and containment with India. Even while making politically correct statements about Indo-Chinese relations, it has blocked India’s attempts to deepen its ties with the ASEAN. It has been making equivocal statements about backing India’s attempts at securing a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and it is blowing hot and cold on the issue of resolving the border dispute. Further, it is trying to ring India militarily with a string of military alliances with Myanmar and Pakistan and provoking India with its aggressive stance on Bhutan and Nepal, both of which have traditionally been India’s backyards. Obviously, the rise of India as another pole in Asia is not something that fills Beijing’s elite with a lot of joy.

But India’s reaction to all these provocations has been marked with silence or a pusillanimous deference to Chinese assertions. Trade and cooperation are all very fine, but the Government of India should realise that in the real world, power respects power. Indian foreign policy must quickly adapt to the country’s changed status— it is a rising world power now, and no longer a Third World basket case, and must learn to fight in its weight class. The way forward: take a strong line on political and military issues while simultaneously pushing for stronger economic ties with the Dragon. In other words, tread with care.

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