The Nathu La switch

The recent visit by the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to China has set the ink flowing in the South Asian media, particularly because it comes together with a definite thaw in the New Delhi-Islamabad relationship. Vajpayee´s visit to Beijing was important in many respects. It was "the first prime ministerial visit to China after India became a nuclear state, which means the meeting took place within the framework of a new power configuration, in a changed geopolitical context. At the same time, the agreement to allow trade across the Sikkim-Tibet border cleverly unravelled a pesky knot that had bedevilled Sino-Indian relationships for much too long. By the simple act of agreeing on cross-border trade at one point —  Nathu La –– the two governments rendered moot the discussion on Indian recognition of China´s annexation of Tibet and India´s annexation of Sikkim.

The trade across the border, of course, can have a bilateral confidence building dimension all its own. To develop Tibet, China needs access to the sea promised by Highway 3, which leads down to Siliguri and on to the Calcutta port. Once this corridor generates economic dividends for both countries, the ghost of the 1962 border war between India and China may finally be exorcised. At the same time, it is possible that uncharted developments may soon overtake the Indian northeast, especially if an energised economy dilutes the sanctity of the internal state security apparatus that has been built up in this region. Who knows, even faraway Calcutta´s trade may see a revival of sorts.

The immediate beneficiary of the opening up of the Nathu La passage to the Chumbi valley in Tibet en route to Lhasa is the state of Sikkim and its Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling. At the same time, now that the Nathu La is open, it is incongruous to maintain the lock on the all-weather route up from Kalimpong via the alternate Jelep La, which is also more direct. Not opening Jelep La may, however, be a calculated holding back, as the Indians give themselves time to see what the cost of freeing trade access for cheap Chinese goods, previously confined to the grey market, means for domestic producers vis-à-vis the Northeast market. However, if the numbers work out right and Jelep La is opened, Darjeeling district may expect to see a revival of its fortunes. Unlike Sikkim, Darjeeling is not a recipient of central largesse and it has started going to seed, as the local economy stagnates.

The 1962 Sino-Indian war battered the Indian establishment´s psyche, converting the Himalayan rim into a super-sensitive border region replete with travel restrictions. It also led to a surge in mountain road-building and the very presence of security forces led to a militarisation of regions and societies (especially in the Northeast) that had their own brewing internal conflicts and disputes with the centre.

Today, if New Delhi is less apprehensive about China, it could very well mean that Nathu La is only the beginning, to be followed by the opening up of Jelep La and a lot of the other las (passes) in the Tibetan-speaking Himalayan rim of South Asia. The long-standing antipathy in New Delhi for Kathmandu´s desires for north-south roads within Nepal may also finally be overcome. The end result of this little switch on Nathu La could be the start of economic and human relationships across the northern frontier of South Asia.

As far as the Sino-Indian strategic relationship at the top is concerned, it was only in 1975 that the two neighbours began a rapprochement. Even so, all was never well with the relationship, one major cause being the significant military and economic assistance provided by China to Pakistan, including in the nuclear sphere. In order to justify the Pokhran II tests in 1998, Vajpayee told the lower house of the Indian parliament that India´s nuclear weapons programme is not "Pakistan-specific. Defence Minister George Fernandes was more direct, when he famously suggested that China was "enemy number one.

Apparently, the Chinese have decided to let bygones be bygones, and decided that the economic possibilities of political rapprochement are more important than how New Delhi perceives Beijing. But there is obviously more to the friendly and mutually reciprocated overtures from both sides.

Careful calculations
Post-September 11 and post-Iraq', the Chinese are far more conscious of the need to evolve their positions in an increasingly US-dominated world. It may have legitimate fears about encirclement, with the US presence in Central Asia and its 'proactive' policy in South Asia. The need to independently reach out to India, for reasons beyond the possibilities of economics and trade, seems understandable.

For its part, as the economic turtle to China´s hare, India must feel the need to link its economy in some way to the runaway success of People´s Republic. The choice to work more closely towards regional security and stability in a spirit of mutual engagement rather than mutual containment is understandable. With mutual engagement, a détente with China and the resolution of the border disputes, India must have calculated that it would gain by putting pressure on the Sino-Pak special relationship to the extent that it is anti-India. In any case, for all concerned, it would be best for it not to challenge China in the nuclear arms race.

As far as the global superpower is concerned, both India and China seem to be quite willing for George W Bush to act out his fears and fantasies in West Asia. For China, there is the added benefit of deflection of any Islamic activism among the Uigyurs of Xinjiang, while the Indian state has simply decided to run with the liberalisation bandwagon at the instance of its English speaking establishment and Hindu right-wing swadeshis, no longer interested in being a representative of the 'downtrodden of the earth. Significantly, Beijing and New Delhi both refrained from condemning the United States over the March invasion of Iraq.

In the whys and the wherefores of this trans-Asian rapprochement, let us be clear about what is important and who benefits. The economy of the People´s Republic of China has annual growth rates that hover between 7 and 8 per cent. In the field of information technology, to take one example, China produces hardware, which tends to spread the income around. India produces software, which concentrates it at the top. India needs to catch up, and if this requires economic linkages with China, then so be it. Realising this, perhaps, Indian techies treated their Chinese counterparts to a power point presentation on the actualities and benefits of proposed cooperation.

It is hopefully this type of reading that got the realists and the idealists in South Block together to push the Nathu La deal through. The remaining border disputes are also de facto settled (the Arunachal frontier and Aksai chin), and if they can similarly be put behind us, one could get started on the true tasks of Asian solidarity. This might, of course, translate into less South Asian cooperation, as India becomes more preoccupied outside the region.

Whether this is a quick way for Vajpayee to become a statesman along the lines of Nehru, or whether this is a well thought out move that has the support of the defence, foreign affairs and internal affairs establishments will become apparent with time. But, in that things have not moved immediately into high gear, and that a degree of circumspection characterises this thaw, there is hope that this is careful foreign policy and not the whim of an aging politician.

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