Did the Northeast figure highly in Prime Minister rendra Modi’s agenda of talks with the Chinese leadership during his just-concluded three tions tour? Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has already complained that the issue of construction of dams over the Brahmaputra has been put on the backburner; that not raising this issue in Beijing is an ‘injustice to Assam’. The Aruchal Citizens’ Rights (ACR) has also expressed concern at the ‘absence of any immediate resolution related to the longstanding problems faced by the people of Aruchal Pradesh’ — particularly the unresolved border dispute. Rather the outcome of the latest round of Sino-Indian talks seems to be mostly business oriented with the Indian side anxious to woo Chinese investments and technologies, feels the ACR. To a large extent, this seems to be true with both countries avoiding controversial issues this time, focusing more upon some concrete do-ables and takeaways. Thus it was that India and Chi inked two dozen government to government pacts for cooperation in areas like skill development, railways, tourism, space, mining, establishing sister-cities and setting up consulates in Chengdu and Cheni. With Prime Minister Modi making his pitch of ‘Make in India’ to Chinese industrialists, Indian and Chinese firms signed 21 agreements worth more than 22 billion dollars in areas ranging from steel and telecom to solar energy.
But what about the ever-widening trade deficit which may cross 40 billion dollars this year, with the terms of trade overwhelmingly in Chi’s favour? This has been a major irritant with major Indian firms, particularly those in IT and pharmaceuticals sectors, complaining of difficulties in entering the Chinese market. The two countries merely agreed in this round of talks to set up a task force to look into ways to reduce the trade deficit. If India and Chi trod warily on the burgeoning trade gap issue, no breakthroughs could be expected on the contentious border issue as well. While it may be harsh to say the boundary issue too has been put on the backburner, what the two neighbours agreed this time is to set up a hotline between their military headquarters, increase the frequency of meetings between commanders and personnel at all border sectors, and arrange for mutual visits soon by the Indian Defence minister and Chi’s Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission. What rendra Modi strongly voiced concern in Beijing was over Chi’s move to invest a whopping 46 billion dollars in an economic corridor through Pakistan and a section of Pak-occupied Kashmir. Another irritant of Beijing frequently issuing stapled visas to residents of Aruchal Pradesh figured obliquely when Prime Minister Modi sought tangible progress on visa issues during talks with his counterpart Li Keqiang, pointing out that the two countries need to be “sensitive to each other’s interests”. Trying to go the extra distance, Modi announced electronic visa on arrival facility to Chinese tiols, with the current and next years being desigted ‘Visit India’ and ‘Visit Chi’ years respectively.
So did the latest round of Sino-Indian talks skirt difficult issues, limiting the exchange to mere pleasantries and cosmetic gestures? During Manmohan Singh’s visit to Chi in October 2013, the two countries did sign a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement to ‘expand and formalise additiol confidence-building measures on the border to help elimite potential misunderstanding’. Another agreement was signed to strengthen cooperation on trans-border rivers ‘through existing Expert Level Mechanism to provide flood-season data and emergency magement’. During those talks, Chi had assured India that it its new dams on rivers flowing from Tibet were ‘run of the river projects not designed to hold water’. But did those agreements stop incursions of Chinese soldiers in Indian territories? Has Beijing eased up on its programme of damming Brahmaputra and other rivers flowing into India, if not trying to divert their flow? In Prime Minister Modi’s words, the relationship between the two countries has been “complex” in recent decades, which necessitates a strategic and long-term view. So expecting quick, out-of-the-box solutions is wishful thinking, risking a major surrender of India’s interests. After all, Chi’s ambitions have grown as evident in its assertiveness in the South Chi seas and its push towards West Asia and the Gulf through the Pakistan-PoK corridor. Beijing has hardened its position with India since 1983 from the earlier quid-pro-quo on Aksai Chin versus Aruchal. It has become extremely sensitive on the Tibetan unrest issue, thereby upping the ante with its claims on Tawang to bolster what it calls ‘Southern Tibet’. So if India plays its cards warily and wisely with the Chinese Dragon while gathering strength with at least a hundred-years vision, it is something all Indians must appreciate.