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By C. Raja Mohan
BEFORE HEADING off to China last weekend, the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, described the relations between the two countries as "excellent, strategic and permanent". This is a characterisation many in the Indian strategic community would agree entirely with. Just as the Pakistani establishment celebrates the "all-weather, time tested" ties between Islamabad and Beijing, the Indian sceptics on China rule out any real advance in the Beijing's positions on issues that divide India and Pakistan.
There is no doubt that one of the central features of the geopolitics in our region over the last five decades has been the enduring strategic partnership between China and Pakistan. But is the past a reliable guide to the future triangular relationship between China, India and Pakistan? Not necessarily.
As elsewhere in life, change is the only permanent feature of international relations. There is no doubt today about one new reality in the region the emergence for the first time in decades of a robust and rapidly expanding Sino-Indian relationship. Will this simple fact make a difference to how China's ties with Pakistan will evolve in the future? One view suggests that over the long term, an intensifying relationship between India and China would inevitably have an effect on the ties between Beijing and Islamabad. The other, more dominant, view is that all the improvements in Sino-Indian relations put together cannot overwhelm the geopolitical value of Pakistan to China as a local balancer against India, a gateway to the Islamic world, and a valuable partner in a volatile region where Beijing has many interests.
India's current enthusiasm for engaging China is not based on expectations of an immediate change in the Sino-Pakistan relationship. Some Indian officials do concede that the growing density of the Sino-Indian relationship could have some impact over the long term on the Chinese strategic calculus in the subcontinent.
Take for example trade. The way Sino-Indian trade is booming, it is likely to reach the target of $10 billion next year itself. And within another five years, and certainly by the end of the decade, it could double again to $20 billion. The intensifying trade and commerce should naturally raise the stakes for China in its relationship with India and Beijing will have to factor this into its larger policy towards the subcontinent.
Indian optimists on China point to the fact that there has already been considerable movement in Beijing's positions on issues of concern to New Delhi. China's publicly articulated position on the Kashmir question has certainly evolved since Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Beijing in December 1988. They also refer to China's refusal to back Pakistani adventurism in Kargil in 1999. Pessimists in India, however, suggest that a lot more evolution in China's Kashmir policy might be needed to make it more balanced. They also underline China's role in making Pakistan a nuclear weapon power in the 1980s and the continuing cooperation on the missile programme. The prudent answer in New Delhi to the question whether India can ever wean China away from Pakistan is likely to remain a negative one for quite some time to come.
But the question itself is posed from the perspective of a zero sum game that any gains for India in its ties with China must be a loss for Pakistan and vice versa. India must consider alternative ways of thinking about the triangular relationship as well as a potential Chinese role in the subcontinent.
The first assumption of such a creative policy must be that progress in solving India's bilateral problems with China could radically alter the geopolitical context of the region and influence all other bilateral ties in our neighbourhood. There appears to be a recognition of this at the highest levels in the Government as seen from the remarks of the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, at the Combined Commanders Conference in the capital last Saturday. According to an official press statement that summed up Mr. Vajpayee's remarks, "a final resolution of the boundary question would release considerable military energies and finances for other more purposeful activities. It is therefore a strategic objective and to achieve it, we should be willing to take some pragmatic decisions."
The full import of Mr. Vajpayee's remarks on China has not been widely understood. It is probably the first time since the Sino-Indian war in 1962 that an Indian Prime Minister is saying that the nation should be ready for major departures from historically stated positions on the boundary dispute. That he chose a meeting of senior military officers to make this bold assertion is equally significant. In preparing the country for "territorial concessions" in the boundary negotiations with China, Mr. Vajpayee is declaring that a final settlement of the dispute is a national strategic objective. The reference to the "release of considerable military energies and finances" is not too difficult to decipher. Mr. Vajpayee is saying the prospect of ending India's historic "two-front" problem might be at hand, if the nation is ready to shed its past rigidity on the boundary dispute with China.
Second, rapid progress in solving bilateral problems with China also undercuts the premises of Pakistan's negotiating position with India. Islamabad says, "let's solve the core political dispute (read Kashmir) and normalisation of relations will follow." New Delhi believes cooperation across a broad front creates the conditions for negotiating that difficult deal on Kashmir. Islamabad's arguments that trade and commerce must wait until political disputes are resolved run counter to the arguments of not just India but China as well.
The new regional doctrine unveiled recently by the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, at the Boao economic summit emphasises the importance of rapid economic integration in Asia and the creation of a new security order on that basis. India is more in tune with this new thinking in China than Pakistan. New Delhi can contribute vigorously in moving ahead with the new economic agenda Beijing has in mind.
Third, India has legitimate grievances about the past nuclear and missile cooperation between China and Pakistan, which has made the security condition in the region so difficult for India. Instead of crying over spilt milk, the Indian emphasis must now be on getting China to stop all such transfers in the future. The fact that China has finally taken the responsibility to lead the efforts to defuse the nuclear crisis in North Korea points to the potential role it could play in restraining the behaviour of Pakistan. If political chaos deepens in Pakistan and the structures of current control over nuclear weapons there become shaky, China will have an important part to play.
Fourth, for decades India has seen Pakistan and China as two adversaries who are in an unshakeable alliance. But as the regional context changes and Sino-Indian ties move in a positive direction, the triangular relationship is unlikely to remain the same.
The new awareness of the threat from terrorism after September 11, 2001 has altered the security debate in the region. The concerns about Pakistan becoming an epicentre of religious extremism and international terrorism are not limited to India. During his visit to Beijing, Gen. Musharraf was under some compulsion to give public assurances that Pakistan will not allow its soil to be used by Muslim separatists from the restive province of Xinjiang. There have been reports of strong complaints from the local authorities in Xinjiang about links between extremists there and terrorist outfits in Pakistan.
The political imperatives in New Delhi and Beijing behind their respective wars on terrorism do not always coincide. But India and China have a common stake in ensuring that Pakistan follows the course of political moderation and economic modernisation. In the past India had tried, without much success, to keep China out of the subcontinent. If India can now think out of the box, leveraging Chinese power to restrain Pakistan becomes an interesting option. To be sure, this is an idea that runs counter to the long held political beliefs in the Indian strategic establishment. India, however, loses nothing by giving it a shot. This year India has started a formal dialogue with the United States on regional security in the subcontinent. This sensible approach of exchanging views on our neighbourhood and finding ways to stabilise it must now be extended to China. India has broken the old rule against engaging great powers on South Asian security. Breaking a taboo is always easier the second time.
(The writer is Professor of South Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)
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