India, China must work on more balanced economic ties for better bilateral relations

Tags: Opinion
Chinese authorities have sent ripples of unease across countries on its periphery. With one fell swoop, China has rattled most of its neighbours with its new passports that carry a map of China incorporating disputed territories. China has been more strident in asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea in the past couple of years.

However, Beijing’s recent move has surprised China watchers, most of whom are still in the process of analysing the changes that are likely to take place with the country’s decadal leadership transition. The move has complicated China’s relations with its neighbours at a time when its transition has not been completed.

China’s growing weight in world affairs and its more assertive manner makes the changes important for most countries, especially its neighbours. A new leadership will bring changes in style even if not making major policy shifts, but the uncertainty has led to speculation and raised a number of questions.

Will the military with its rising clout in Chinese affairs become more important in policy making, especially with regard to maritime disputes with neighbours like Japan and Vietnam.

Speeches made by the new leaders have been couched; the main focus will be on the economy, economic reforms and maintaining economic growth. Issues like corruption and ecological concerns are expected to gain added attention. There was little reference to foreign policy during China’s 18th Party Congress so it is likely that there would not be much change in the foreign policy agenda. Territorial claims will be pursued as before for the new leaders would not want to be perceived as backing down on any issue.

The American plan for an Asian pivot is likely to go ahead with US president Barack Obama’s re-election. This would require China to re-assert its pre-eminent position in the region, including the waters of the South China Sea.

The map-in-passport issue, which has the potential of escalating into a major row, could be seen as a sign of more aggressive assertion though the new passports were issued in the middle of the year. The new passports carry an electronic chip that contains the fingerprints, signature and photograph of the passport holder. The passports have images of scenery and monuments as background on the pages, including a page with the Chinese map as well as pictures of two well-known scenic locations in Taiwan.

The map on the new passport claims the entire South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia and also the Aksai Chin area and Arunachal Pradesh region in India. The disputed islands of Senkaku or Diaoyo that have raised tensions between China and Japan in recent times are not included in the map. This may be because the scale of the map is too small to show up the two tiny islands.

Diplomats contend that stamping a visa on a document with the disputed map would mean an implicit acceptance of the Chinese claim. Vietnam and the Philippines have lodged formal protests with the Chinese government.

Vietnam has begun issuing visas on a separate sheet of paper stapled to the passport. This is similar to what the Chinese had been doing with the passports of Kashmiris wishing to travel to China till the practice was discontinued last year following strong protests from India. India has chosen a carefully calibrated and mature response – Indian visa authorities have begun pasting Indian visas on Chinese passports with a map of India.

India has played down the issue by quietly matching the Chinese move and not allowing it to gain the dimensions of another contentious public spat. The recent India-China Strategic Economic Dialogue displayed another change in stance with the Indian side welcoming Chinese investment in the infrastructure sector.

Earlier apprehensions regarding Chinese investments in the critical telecommunications sector had coloured most Chinese investments in India. They are now being seen as the best means to address India’s heavily skewed balance of trade with China. Working towards more substantive and balanced economic ties could change the frame of bilateral relations between the two countries.

(The writer is a foreign affairs commentator)

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