A Chinese lullaby

The visit of Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang from May 19-22 had to compete for space with the unfurling Indian Premier League scandal — an admixture of the sublime and the ridiculous.
Mr Li’s prime objective was to shift the focus from the three-week-old Chinese intrusion in Ladakh, which miraculously dissipated as fast as it emerged, leaving many questions unanswered. For instance, was it enacted to test the Indian leadership’s nerves or distract them or obtain commitments on a slow-down/freeze in upgrading Indian infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)? Alternatively, was it for Chinese domestic opinion, reassuring the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that no overtures were on the table for border dispute resolution through mutual compromise?
Mr Li displayed great public relations skills and through body language, extempore speaking and articulating that convergences were greater than the differences, left everyone wondering if this was “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” re-born. Whether it is a genuine shift in Chinese approach to India or a tactical repositioning needs further examination. That Mr Li has left India debating is a testimony to his skills.
This fifth generation of the Chinese leadership, known also as the “lost generation”, were in middle or elementary school when Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution enveloped China in 1966, to run for a decade, ruining lives, upending society and causing economic chaos. When higher education opened in 1977, on Mao’s death, 11.6 million youth applied to join first and second years of college. Only three per cent were admitted. The graduates, known as the Class of 1982, include President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li. Unlike the fourth generation, mostly engineers- turned-technocrats, fifth generation leaders’ backgrounds are more diverse. They represent the two rival political groupings — the Princelings, like Mr Xi, whose ancestors were Mao’s colleagues and the populist camp or tuanpai, to which Mr Li belongs.
Mr Xi is for private sector, market liberalisation, economic efficiency, inland development and a higher rate of growth. Mr Li is concerned about unemployment, housing, social safety network etc. In fact, his “employment in 20 days”, for those who have no family member employed sounds like a Chinese NREGA.
The fundamental question, being asked in all capitals from Tokyo to Washington, is whether China has abandoned the Deng Xiaoping injunction to rise peacefully?
The concern is palpable in three active regions where Chinese assertiveness is witnessed. These are the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the nine-dash Chinese claim in the South China Sea and the Indian LAC. The signals from China are contradictory. The Chinese defence budget has grown at an over 10 per cent annually and is officially $114.3 billion for 2013. In actuality it may be 50 per cent higher.
Reflecting the complicated scenario in South Asia was that as Mr Li arrived in India, President Thein Sein of Burma was landing in Washington. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was already on Indian soil before Mr Li had departed for Pakistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be in Tokyo in the following week. Mr Xi is to arrive in California in June for the first Sino-US summit. Amidst this it is unclear if the US “pivot”, rebranded as “re-balancing”, combined with trans-Pacific partnerships, is still on the table.
During Mr Li’s visit eight agreements were signed on less than spectacular issues.
Two deal with water resources, but the Chinese have not conceded that as a lower riparian state India has a right to be consulted on water diversion or damming upstream. Three working groups on commercial relations are to apparently address trade imbalance, with Chinese exports three times India’s. Mr Li suggested a Regional Trade Agreement, which India would fear due to China’s manufacturing strength. Curiously, the two sides endorsed a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor, as the President of Burma was sitting down to talk to US President Barack Obama.
The $100 billion trade by 2015, without infrastructure overhaul in India, can only benefit China. Setting up of industrial zones for Chinese companies, greater border trade etc are all excellent ideas that cannot precede altered Chinese conduct that would indicate that it is moving away from locking India into a South Asian construct through open and clandestine assistance to troublesome Indian neighbours. That Mr Li had no hesitation in combining a trip to India with one to Pakistan, something that India generally scoffs at when it comes to Western interlocutors, emphasises that they are not about to re-balance relations in South Asia.
The conundrum persists whether to trust China and not be seen as converging with what Japanese deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso in Delhi described a few weeks ago as the maritime democracies of the Asia-Pacific, while separately engaging them. The PMO appears to be for this line.
An alternative and more compelling assessment would be that smiling Mr Li is lulling India into separating from Japan and the US, having realised that its assertiveness has got its entire periphery thinking containment.
To reject this as very 20th century is to ignore the lesson of the Cold War, that containment worked where engagement had only encouraged Stalin, post 1945, to grab as much of Europe through communist surrogates as possible. Dr Singh’s Japan visit would indicate whether a balance can be worked out between shaking hands with China and embracing Japan, which is a more reliable technology and investment partner. In fact, Japanese investment may already be looking to scale back in China for both political and economic reasons. India should neither be a Panda hugger nor a dragon slayer, but a voice of moderation, liberal politics and equitable economics in Asia — an Indian beacon.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh

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