Manipal, India — Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returned Wednesday from a four-day visit to Beijing that even his spinmeisters could not categorize as a success. Having made the India-U.S. nuclear deal the foundation of his legacy, Singh had expected Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to follow through on the promise of "nuclear cooperation" that he had made during a 2005 visit to New Delhi.
While there was a reiteration of that pledge in the Vision Statement released during the visit, this was qualified by subsequent explicit references to any such partnership being within the boundaries set out in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. As the justification for the deal was that it opened the way for international civil nuclear cooperation with India outside the restrictions imposed by the NPT on powers other than the five recognized nuclear weapons states, this caveat reduced the Chinese offer to a meaningless pleasantry.
Neither in the International Atomic Energy Agency nor in the Nuclear Suppliers Group did the Chinese leadership give any indication during the Jan. 13-15 talks of softening their earlier position that India would have to sign on to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons power -- in other words, to denuclearize -- before securing international cooperation.
Then came another blow. The new Labor government in Australia reversed the decision by former Prime Minister John Howard to sell uranium to India once the India-U.S. deal becomes operational. Canberra said that India's signing the NPT would be a precondition for such transfers. This is a non-starter in the Indian context of the need for a nuclear and missile deterrent against possible attack.
Manmohan Singh had also hoped to persuade his hosts in Beijing to nudge the long-stalled border talks forward by accepting India's condition that areas with "settled populations" would be excluded from any exchange of territory. Although Wen Jiabao had accepted this condition in 2005, a year later Beijing returned to the earlier hard line that even populated zones were open to negotiation.
In particular, China pressed for the cession of Tawang, a small town in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh that is revered as a pilgrimage site by Tibetans. Indeed, Beijing repeatedly articulated the claim that the entire state was Chinese, refusing in the process to issue a visa to any Indian national from there on the grounds that as a national of the People's Republic of China, such an individual did not need a visa.
As for the other gesture sought by the Indian delegation, Chinese support for an Indian seat on the U.N. Security Council as a permanent member, there was again scant comfort.
Altogether, apart from sugary phrases that could be construed in any manner, there was no concession from the Chinese side at all, even though during the visit India gave access to the Chinese cargo carrier Great Wall Airlines to Mumbai and Chennai, and allowed the state-run China Central Television to freely beam into India.
China's dilemma is real. The only geopolitical rival it has in Asia is its huge southern neighbor. Both have a population in excess of 1 billion, and economies that are growing rapidly. Both appeal to the same constituencies in the underdeveloped world, and compete for influence there, as they do in major markets such as the United States and the European Union. They also compete for key sources of technology and raw materials.
Giving India a boost would not work in China's interest. This is one reason Beijing has invested considerable effort in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, to reduce the Indian footprint in these countries.
However, the ongoing jihadisation of Pakistan and Bangladesh is reducing their value in any containment strategy toward India, while civil strife in Sri Lanka and Nepal is having a similar effect there. Apart from these countries, Beijing has also quietly leaned on Myanmar to deny oil and gas concessions to India, and is unhappy at the work under way to set up a land link between India and ASEAN through the Indo-Myanmar border. Yet none of this is slowing down India's economic expansion, and consequently its attractiveness as a regional partner.
Apart from India emerging as an economic powerhouse, the other nightmare for Beijing is its U.S. links. Since the 1970s and until the demise of the USSR in 1992, Beijing leveraged its rivalry with Moscow into numerous U.S. economic and technology concessions, help that was core to its emergence as the world's second most significant economy in Purchasing Power Parity terms.
Now that China has replaced the USSR as the object of negative U.S. attention, the worry in Beijing is an India-U.S. partnership that would generate the same benefits for New Delhi as the earlier one did for China. The Chinese leadership therefore needs to play a delicate game, giving India just enough concessions to prevent it from transiting to the U.S.-led alliance, but not enough to significantly boost its capabilities.
In their efforts to hold back India's links with the United States, the Chinese leadership has enthusiastic partners in India in the form of the two communist parties now supporting the Manmohan Singh government with their 62 members of Parliament. The Communist Party of India and the Communist Party (Marxist) are open about following an agenda that dovetails with Chinese interests, although they appear to be losing support in their regional strongholds.
China would like to sign a regional trade agreement with India that would give its products free entry into the Indian market, especially in the infrastructure sector. This is being resisted by Indian business, already sharply affected by what it claims to be dumping by the Chinese side. This, as well as continuing Chinese support for the nuclear and missile programs of Pakistan, is acting as a speed breaker on the Indian government's propensity to offer concessions without securing anything in return.
Altogether, apart from some excellent cuisine and much honeyed language, Manmohan Singh has returned empty-handed from Beijing. Clearly, the hardnosed decision makers there see his as a lame duck administration, and would like to await the outcome of the next general elections in India before deciding on just how much the tap has to be opened to keep India separated from the United States.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)