|Friday, 16 May 2003|
Vajpayee's China trip could tip balance of power
by Jane Macartney, Asian Diplomatic Correspondent
SINGAPORE, (Reuters) After extending the hand of peace to arch-foe Pakistan, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's planned follow-up visit to old-enemy China could redraw the diplomatic map of a region that is of acute interest to Washington after the Iraq war.
The major players - India, China and Pakistan - bristle with nuclear arms, and Vajpayee's peace plays may be aimed not only at ensuring a place in the history books for the elderly politician but reducing the risk of a nightmare conflict among longtime foes with weapons trained on India from north and west.
The shifts in bilateral ties among the trio as well as in their relationships with the United States since the Cold War, plus a big nudge from the September 11 attacks, are starting to alter dramatically diplomatic patterns unchanged for decades.
"Diplomacy is back in business in South Asia," wrote Washington-based South Asia expert Paula Newberg at the weekend.
If Vajpayee goes to China in June it will be the first such visit by an Indian prime minister in a decade and comes after Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji toured India last year. The visit would unsettle old China friend Pakistan, putting pressure on President Pervez Musharraf as he ponders Vajpayee's surprise offer last month to give peace a chance after the nuclear neighbours narrowly averted war in 2002.
"India is also interested in reducing the number of potential foes during this 'war on terror'," said Sanjay Ganguly, professor of Asian studies and government at the University of Texas in Austin. That is of concern to China, too, as it worries Islamic militants are slipping over the border from Pakistan and stirring resentment in its restive Muslim western region of Xinjiang.
"Simultaneously, Vajpayee may just be interested in seeing if he can, to any degree, wean China away from Pakistan," he said.
"This is a tall order given the long-standing relationship between those two states, China's misgivings about Islamic militancy in Xinjiang notwithstanding." It may be a tall order, but not as tall as trying to resolve the territorial disputes that triggered a war between India and China in 1962. To this day, the two have failed to agree even on mapping out their border.
Vajpayee will make no progress there when he meets new Chinese leaders President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
"The current pattern is to try to improve trade and political relationships. Territorial problems, nuclear issues are not going to get resolved," said Indian defence analyst Uday Bhaskar. "But symbolism in China acquires a certain substantive dimension."
One Chinese expert said the visit was more than symbolic. "Maintaining high-level political contact furthers understanding between these two big countries," said Sun Shihai, a South Asia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. The two may have agreed to put such intractable disputes on the back burner while they confront issues of the day - boosting trade, reducing military tensions and the consequent drain on budgets, and altering the balance of power in the region.
A rapidly prospering China and greater attention from the United States are factors affecting that balance.
"I've always argued that it made more sense for India to normalise with Pakistan than China, separating the two by being nice to Pakistan. But it takes two to tango," said South Asia expert Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institute in Washington. Vajpayee may feel that if Musharraf is not ready to take to the dance floor he should be looking to Beijing and Washington.
THE U.S. FACTOR AND MONEY
Signs of closer ties with Washington, underscored by recent limited joint military exercises, could strengthen India's hand in dealing with both Islamabad and Beijing - and boost trade.
"A closer relationship with the United States makes India a bit more self-confident in dealing with China," said Ganguly, adding that Beijing had been rattled when India did not issue a knee-jerk criticism after Washington quit the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty in 2001.
"One of the goals of this visit to China in the context of steadily warming Indo-U.S. relations is to disconcert General Musharraf," said Ganguly.
However, Asia expert Sheng Lijun of Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies warned that excessive reliance by either Washington or India on that relationship as a strategic counterpoint to the rapid rise of China could lead to quicksand. "Each could be manipulated by the other," he said.
"China will not hurt relations with one country just because it develops relations with another," Sun said of friend Pakistan.
It wouldn't hurt if India could reduce the cost of patrolling its northern border with China while facing Pakistan to the west. "Defence spending is actually an issue," Ganguly said.
And at the very least a Vajpayee trip would stamp a seal on an improvement of ties with Beijing, which took a dive after India's 1998 nuclear tests, and could boost trade that is now a fraction of China's total but more significant for India.
"India is more concerned about the indicators of the Chinese economy than the Chinese military," said Bhaskar. "This is good in terms of the larger relationship direction that India should be charting - to have a robust relationship with the two major economies of the U.S. and China."
(With additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing).
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