Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to India is rife with sub-texts. He is leading a delegation of 400 businessmen, a larger commercial entourage than accompanied other recent visitors to Delhi, U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. China, this says, is the country to do business with. Wen will then be going on to India’s arch-rival and China’s closer military ally, Pakistan. None of Obama, Sarkozy or Cameron made India a way-station on the road to Islamabad. And unlike in India, once he gets there, Wen will address Pakistan’s parliament. China, all this says, marches to the beat of its own strategic regional interests.
One is access to warm water ports in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Pakistan gives it the former and Sri Lanka and Myramar the later. One the well-worn principal of the flag following trade that suggests that both waters are ones where China eventually expects to be deploying its navy as well as its merchant marine, a prospect that will concern the U.S. as much as it does India. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sounded positively Japanese when he talked recently of China’s growing “assertiveness” in the region.
A second strategic Chinese interest is stability and friendly states along its borders. The one with India is long, 4,000 kilometers, non-continguous and disputed at more than one point. The two countries went to war over it in 1962. Distrust still lingers on both sides, and periodically surfaces, while India’s sanctuary for the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, since the 1959 uprising in Tibet, is a constant bane for Beijing.
Since that conflict China and India have abandoned in good part economies based on communist and socialist precepts respectively to become Asia’s two emerging economic giants. That, too, has created an uneasy long- and short-term rivalry. The trade delegation accompanying Wen will seek to buy off some of the Indian concern about the heavy surplus in China’s favor on the $60 billion of trade between the two countries. It is unlikely to do much for Indian complaints about lack of access to the domestic Chinese market for its (world-class) IT and pharmaceutical companies.
That is work for the politicians. China has hinted that it would like to start work on a bilateral free trade agreement during Wen’s visit, which will be the equivalent of pushing off the problem to a committee, especially as India has recently become more protectionist over its natural-resources exports for which China has heavy demand. It would, however, keep the focus on trade and let the genial Uncle Wen India is likely to see get off to Pakistan without becoming too embroiled in the difficult security and border issues and geo-political rivalry between the two countries.
In one sense the rivalry is the regional mirror image of the co-opetition between China and the U.S. Even as Beijing and Delhi, as fellow BRICies, have co-operated in international negotiations on climate change, trade rules and reform of multilateral institutions such as the IMF, China has tried to hem in India’s nuclear program, kept it at arms length from the Association of South-East Asian Nations and sought to prevent it becoming a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. For its part, India has developed a nuclear weapons program that Beijing sees directed at it as much as Pakistan, invested heavily in a blue-water fleet to protect its interests in the Indian Ocean and started to expand security co-operation with Japan and South Korea — all of which send messages of their own.