China decision on dams may hurt ties with India (Sunday Guardian)
MADHAV NALAPAT Beijing | 6th Apr 2013
The Brahmaputra in Assam: ‘The sanctioning of three new dams on the Brahmaputra river in Tibet just four months after Xi Jinping (below) took over as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party threatens to derail the reset of ties with India.’ | Reu
fter a gap of two years following the uproar among ecologists and disquiet in Delhi about China's beginning construction of the Zangmu gravity dam on the Brahmaputra river in Tibet (or Yarlung Tsangpo, as it is locally known), the sanctioning of three new dams (Jiache, Degu and Jiexu) on the same river just four months after Xi Jinping took over as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in September 2013 threatens to derail the reset of ties with India which the new Chinese Head of State is planning to carry out.
Together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India was the only other Head of Government who was called personally by incoming Chinese PM Li Keqiang on his first day in office. And although both President Asif Zardari of Pakistan and President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka were called by President Xi Jinping soon after taking charge, this was explained by a senior official in Beijing as being "because both are executive Presidents", unlike India's Pranab Mukherjee, whose role is titular. Chinese officials also point to the early meeting of Xi with Manmohan Singh in Durban and the cordial talks they held there as evidence that the new Chinese Head of State seeks a "reset of ties with India".
As in the case of his predecessor Hu Jintao, who distinguished himself from the West-focused Jiang Zemin, the first country Xi visited after his swearing in was Russia, followed by the BRICS summit in Durban. Interestingly, the policy document released after the September 2012 Party Congress mentions no country by name, except for the BRICS bloc, thereby indicating that Xi wishes to continue the global focus of Hu rather than the West-focused policies of Jiang Zemin, the President under whom a few in China amassed billions while state-provided benefits to the rest of the population got drastically pruned. A scholar in Beijing claimed that during the 1990s, Jiang "converted the Chinese Communist Party into the Chinese Capitalist Party", and that he and his faction "blocked efforts during 2002-2012 by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to make the system less unfair to those without influence", especially the benefit of ancestry. The scholar was hopeful that "Xi Jinping would succeed where Hu failed, and bring back Deng Xiaoping Thought into the policy matrix". Although Deng concentrated on economic development, he was careful throughout the 1980s not to dilute the "Iron Rice Bowl" of social security benefits to the common man, whereas Jiang did away with this safety net.
Officials in Beijing are clearly in a mood to assert their own position in international councils, even where these collide with the course favoured by NATO, Syria being an example. Beijing has joined with Moscow to block NATO, Qatar and Turkey from doing a Gaddafi on the country's Shia President, Bashar Assad. "We would like India to remain loyal to non-alignment", said a senior official. The possibility of Delhi joining hands with Tokyo as a military alliance partner of Washington is giving nightmares to policymakers in Beijing, who see the need for "practical steps to show India that China can be an all-weather friend", the same formulation used in the case of relations with Pakistan. However, close ties with Islamabad are an important reason why diplomats in Delhi are sceptical of hints from Beijing of a reset in ties. A senior MEA official pointed out that (apart from the announcement that three more dams would be built on the Brahmaputra) "soon after Xi took office, it was announced that China was replacing Singapore in the managing of Gwadar port". The Indian side has yet to see any positive momentum in either the boundary talks (where the Jiang position, which is much more rigid than that of Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, continues to this day) or in giving better access to Indian pharma and IT companies.
Chinese officials say that they are looking at ways of evening the balance of financial flows between India and China "by getting more involved in financing Indian industry and infrastructure" and also in "sending 300, 000 tourists each year to India to visit Buddhist sites".
They are also uneasy at the nature of a Taliban and are therefore hesitant in following the US lead in accepting the Pakistan army's plea that the extremist group ought to be given a privileged place in any new Afghan dispensation. Some officials speak of joining hands with India "to keep extremists from power and to stabilise Afghanistan", although as yet Delhi does not seem to have received any formal overture in this regard. Beijing under Xi is also likely to drop its earlier opposition to India's fuller participation in fora such as the SCO and APEC. However, the matter of the four dams across the Brahmaputra remains. "Unless Beijing agrees to share information with India on this dam project and ensure that the interests of the lower riparian states (India and Bangladesh) are safeguarded, a reset cannot take place", a senior official in Delhi warned. Officials in Beijing were unwilling to comment on whether President Xi was ready to agree to meaningful talks with Delhi on the Brahmaputra dams. "Should that happen, the sky is the limit for India-China relations," a senior Indian official claimed.