Is China resetting relations?

Chinese Premier Wen Jibao’s South Asian trip is due on Wednesday. Headed for New Delhi before going to Islamabad, the trip’s significance cannot be emphasised enough.

Despite burgeoning trade touching a whopping $60 billion, ties between China and India remain fragile. This is chiefly because of territorial tensions though relations have shown improvement ever since the brief war fought between the two in 1962. Both Asian giants have also been pitted inadvertently against each other because of their ambitious policies, which are not just contained in the economic arena, but also naturally overlap the political and military fields.

However this has not affected economic relations that have seen China emerge as India’s largest trading partner. There is also the issue of Pakistan. China’s strategic ties with Pakistan are not only limited to developing its military capability but also its nuclear energy programme, not to forget the development of the deep water port at Gwadar on the Makran Coast which many perceive will serve as a future military outpost for Beijing. Besides, China’s fervent infrastructure development in Pakistan’s northern areas including construction of roads is perceived as paving the way for future Chinese military presence in the area—an unnerving factor for New Delhi.

Premier Jiabo’s visit to New Delhi at this juncture is aimed at repairing the ties that were further damaged over some contentious issues. For instance, China is strongly critical over India allowing the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama refuge. Second, Beijing’s refusal to grant a visa to a Kashmiri based Indian general this year led to India cancelling defence exchanges with China. Besides, China’s policy of issuing separate visas to Kashmiris unlike standard visas issued to other Indians has been a major sticking point. The question is if the two regional powers are able to rise above their existing differences and stride forward together?

More significant is the message being relayed to both India and Pakistan. China undoubtedly values its relations with Pakistan and is not likely to forsake it for improving relations with New Delhi. However, it is also keen on removing the hurdles littered on the path of its relations with India. One thing is certain that China is not likely to allow acrimony between the two nuclear neighbours to mar its own independent foreign relations. In fact, with improved relations it can help reduce tensions between the two. There is more to the Indo-Pak tensions than Kashmir and it might help to have a regional friendly state to look up to in moments of crisis rather than the West.

It will be interesting to see what the Chinese visit brings to South Asia. Moreover, China’s efforts to boost economic relations with both are likely to be a positive development.

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