From the early days of Jawaharlal Nehru, successive Indian prime ministers have been obsessed with the idea of improving India’s relations with two rather recalcitrant neighbours—Pakistan and China. Manmohan Singh is not the sort of man to be an exception to this.
But as his second term nears its end, he also realises that Indo-Pak ties are unlikely to show any marked improvement in the near future. His recent attempt at reaching out to Pakistan by agreeing to meet Nawaz Sharif, disregarding contrary advice from sections in South Block, has not helped either. In fact, the spurt of Pakistani activities along the LoC soon after the PMs’ New York meeting has only put him in a tighter spot. The possibility of a long-envisioned visit by Manmohan to Pakistan, complete with a trip to Gah village, now looks extremely remote. Which also means no major breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations is expected till a new dispensation comes to power in Delhi after the 2014 parliamentary polls.
But China is different, and it is here that Manmohan feels he can leave his mark before he demits office. The visit to Beijing, slated for October 22-24, comes at the end of a hectic year of travelling, which took the PM to South Africa, Japan, Thailand, Germany, United States, Indonesia and Russia—all of which play a significant role in India’s foreign policy.
To end the year, and perhaps also his two-term tenure as PM, with a China visit is also befitting. Manmohan will go down in history as only the second Indian premier to have visited China in the same calendar year when a Chinese premier has also visited India (Premier Li Kiqiang had visited New Delhi this summer). The only time this happened was in 1954, with Zhou Enlai and Nehru. The unstated bit is that it betokens a certain heightened mood of reciprocity.
South Block officials acknowledge that India’s relation with China is a difficult one and the long, disputed border issue between the two sides, which had led to war in 1962, remains unresolved. But China’s salience in Indian foreign policy is such, they say, that any initiative is inherently justified.
The ceasefire agreement signed by India and Pakistan in 2003 to keep their borders peaceful has been under severe strain from early this year due to increased cross-border activity from Pakistan. Apart from the brutal beheading of an Indian soldier, it has also led to a series of vicious skirmishes between rival troops along the LoC, ending with this month’s incident at Keran. It has, therefore, become imperative for India to ensure calm on the Sino-Indian border. Leaving aside the more militant voices in the Indian defence establishment, it’s obvious that it is not desirable for India to have tense borders with both Pakistan and China. Indeed, officials at the Indian foreign policy and security establishment shudder at such a scenario and make no bones in pointing out that New Delhi cannot afford to have two active borders. The Depsang episode in the Ladakh sector along the Sino-Indian border early this year, which saw Chinese and Indian soldiers in a nervy 20-day face-off, had raised serious concerns in South Block. Though not a single shot was fired, the Indian leadership wants to ensure that such incidents do not recur in future.
An analogous split between a more skittish army and a diplomatic-minded political leadership is often hinted at in China too; the latter is keen on tranquility along the Sino-Indian border, and is likely to roll out the red carpet for Manmohan. In South China Sea, China’s exclusive claims are being contested by many of its neighbours. In addition, the US’s enhanced role in the region has left Beijing worried. At this juncture, having a continually tense border with India does not serve China’s interests.
That the Chinese invest meaning in the Manmohan visit becomes clear from the fact that not only are a series of high-level banquets being hosted by Premier Li and President Xi Jingping, but also by the former Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao—with whom the PM is known to have a good personal chemistry. Besides, Manmohan will also address members at the Chinese Communist Party’s school—which provides him the opportunity of reaching out to future leaders of China.
It’s not that something very dramatic will be realised; Manmohan’s trip will focus on modest, concrete steps, perhaps a new agreement to maintain peace along the border. Other issues pertaining to trade and investment, with easier market access for Indians, too are likely to come up during talks. However, the highlight of the visit is likely to be in the Indian prime minister’s attempt to put an over-arching framework in place to ensure the upward trajectory in Sino-Indian relations, irrespective of who comes to power in New Delhi. If that happens, Manmohan can take some credit in playing a small role in improving relations with one of the two more difficult neighbours of India.