Li Peng, China’s second most powerful leader, came visiting India in early January, and clearly his interest was more than a pose with Mrs. Li in front of the Taj. A lot had happened to the world and Asia since his earlier trip of 1991, fast on the heels of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In South Asia, India (and Pakistan) had gone openly nuclear and New Delhi is now in full embrace with the United States.
For India and the rest of South Asia, it is the direction taken by Beijing that is a matter of immense strategic and economic concern. Although no longer viewed as an enigma, China is a subject of abounding interest, concern and speculation. Changes in that one country will affect everyone. Deprivation of freedom of expression and association is unsustainable in a globalised economy within the information age, and the cataclysmic upheavals which will overtake China when (not if) the tight lid of political control comes off will have consequences for global security.
In the big league, China stands alone as a country that does not accept a pluralistic and democratic value system. Its socialism, modified to market-socialism by the cynical dictums of Deng Xiaoping, has little to do with egalitarian order and is instead a thin cover for one-party dictatorship. But political backwardness has not blunted China’s economic clout, and it is perhaps the only country outside the Western hemisphere in a position to launch a trade war against the United States.
It is the recognition of this economic prowess, rather than Beijing’s willingness to conform to international rules, that has gained it membership into the World Trade Organisation. Unlike the case with India, China’s imminent entry into the WTO will not hamstring it with multilateral arrangements. It has sewn up bilateral agreements that give it tremendous, and even unfair advantages, in the international trading system.
The one all-important issue, of course, is that China is the world’s biggest nuclear and missile proliferator, and Beijing can only become more unyielding with the new Bush administration taking charge in Washington, with its agenda to develop the National Missile Defence (NMD) programme. This will give China the excuse it needs to increase and upgrade its own stockpile of nuclear weapons and missiles. New Delhi cited Chinese designs as the compelling reason for carrying out its 1998 Pokharan II tests, and now it (and the rest of the region) will have to live with the risks of a Chinese counter-proliferation to the American NMD.
The atmospherics of Li’s India visit, surprisingly, did not indicate that the matter of proliferation of nuclear weapons and [fissile material] had been discussed at all. Likewise, there was no talk of unresolved border problems, a legacy of the 1962 war. China has occupied several thousand kilometres of Indian-claimed territory.
Li’s speeches and responses while in India signified that this was an attempt at the highest political level to strengthen relations, manage tensions and clear the way for increased economic interaction. This meant skirting intractable areas and addressing issues where there is convergence of interest. One of them could be in developing a triangular cooperation between Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi, but then none of the three want to be seen to be the one trying to bell the American cat. This was a proposal mooted over three years ago by then Russian prime minister Yevgeni Primakov. The Chinese were not initially enthusiastic but have warmed to the idea in recent months. Beijing now favours a detailed discussion through Track-II diplomacy for “intellectual clarification of the issues involved”.
Not much is likely to come of this, certainly not in the near future. Moscow is using it more as a ‘China card’ to put pressure on the US and Western multilateral agencies whose help it needs. New Delhi, too, is unlikely to pursue the formation of such an arrangement if developed along anti-US lines given the new cosiness in India-US relations.
The “missing trust” that Li spoke of while in Delhi is unlikely to disappear even if the two countries manage to maintain cordial relations. A lesson for New Delhi, whose defence minister cited China as “Potential Threat No. 1” to justify the 1998 nuclear tests, is that Beijing’s power on the international stage is not based on its nuclear arsenal. It has more to do with China’s stupendous economic achievements. India is sadly lacking the economic foundation so necessary to acquire muscle on the world stage. It is China’s economic growth, not its missiles alone, that is the greater challenge to democratic India.