Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has arrived for his first visit to China after a wait of more than a year. Some people may remember it was mentioned as early as last spring that Singh would visit China soon. No one thought it would take so long to eventuate.
The reason for this could be "too many expectations". The two governments expected a great deal from Singh's China trip when he agreed to come, hoping to make some breakthroughs on a series of bilateral issues of significance.
For example, the Chinese side hoped to sign a bilateral free trade pact or a regional trade arrangement. The Indian side, meanwhile, hoped the two countries would achieve some breakthrough on a border issue, especially that the Chinese side would accept a solution described as "maintaining the status quo with minor adjustments".
Like it or not, there is always a gap between wish and reality. As it is, neither side is fully prepared for a breakthrough the other is hoping for. Such a gap between wish and reality is probably the reason why Singh's Beijing visit has repeatedly been delayed.
However, we must not view this gap or delay as a negative, because it has actually spurred the two sides to explore and advance in other areas of their bilateral relationship. Last year saw instances of significant progress in China-India ties, particularly in security and between the two militaries.
The armed forces of the two countries conducted two rounds of defense and security talks in November, making the dialogue the most important platform for confidence building between the two militaries. Last month, the two nations' armies conducted their first joint military exercise, turning a "staring match" into a "handshake", as both sides put aside their 1962 border war. The two sides also thrashed out their concerns and worries about security during their third strategic dialogue, greatly advancing their strategic mutual confidence.
Even on such tough issues as border demarcation and bilateral trade, the two nations have managed to make some encouraging progress in the past year. At the 11th meeting of special representatives held in September, the two sides agreed to form a joint working group that would build a framework for resolving the border issue, thus putting efforts on track toward a real solution.
Meanwhile, bilateral trade has been progressing as well. Total trade value for the first 11 months of 2007 was $34.2 billion, an increase of 54 percent year on year. The two countries are now almost sure of realizing their target of $40 billion a year in bilateral trade by 2010. As a matter of fact, the only thing missing from Sino-Indian relations last year were reciprocal visits by the leaders of the two nations.
One can always tell the political relationship between two countries from the frequency of high-level visits. Both China and India maintain annual bilateral summit meetings with Russia, which means their relations with Russia are very close; Chinese and Japanese leaders played host to each other several times last year, evidence that their bilateral ties are warming.
Likewise, the obvious deepening of China-India relations since the beginning of the new century has been the natural result of the quickening pace at which high-level reciprocal visits between the two governments have taken place. Two Chinese premiers and their Indian counterparts have paid each other official visits during their terms in office in recent years. President Kocheril Raman Narayanan of India visited China in 2000 and Chinese President Hu Jintao visited India in 2006. Such visits between top leaders of the two countries are unprecedented. It shows bilateral ties have indeed been put on a positive track.
However, the current pace of high-level reciprocal visits between the two sides still needs to be stepped up as the two build a strategic partnership as fast-rising powers. The two giant neighbors have yet to commit to holding annual bilateral summit meetings. The last Indian president, Abdul Kalam, never visited China during his five-year term in office. As for Prime Minister Singh, this is his fourth year in office but his first trip to China.
Reciprocal visits between top leaders are particularly important for China and India to improve their bilateral ties, because exchanges between the two peoples have not been smooth despite the fact they are neighbors. In 2006, a total of 629,947 Indian nationals visited China, but only 46,805 Chinese visited India; and just 67,600 Chinese people visited India last year, the Year of Travel and Friendship which saw 35 million overseas trips undertaken by Chinese citizens.
Without reciprocal visits there will be no face-to-face interaction, no personal experiences or direct understanding. It only gives rise to erroneous assumptions and misunderstanding. In fact, the infrequent contacts between ordinary citizens of China and India are very much the result of their lack of knowledge about each other.
India Today, a magazine, carried a lengthy article last October alleging Chinese troops had "invaded" India 130 times (in matter of months) and their numbers piled up to more than 10,000, which translates as an infantry division of the People's Liberation Army. Outrageous as it is, hardly anyone at that time came forward to refute such an inconceivable display of wayward "journalism". The Indian military also found it necessary to stay silent. The reason behind such "revelations" is that the two countries are obviously on "different wave lengths" over the border issue. There is no historical record showing a physical borderline that both countries recognize. How can you invade a foreign land that does not exist?
The Indian press frequently reports that Chinese enterprises are entering sensitive areas, resulting in "security" problems, while the Chinese press has complained about India's so-called "barricade" policy. That kind of coverage to a certain degree has chilled the enthusiasm of Chinese businesses entering the Indian market. The truth however is Chinese companies winning a sizable number of contracts in India because they are widely preferred for their quality and inexpensive work.
How should we close the gaps between the two nations? Think regular high-level reciprocal visits - once a year should be an effective way to begin - and make each a bridge for the two sides to narrow their "cognitive gaps" and each an informative campaign to popularize the gist of our bilateral relations. As the two peoples get to know each other better, their interactions will increase, bilateral ties will develop more smoothly and some of the thorny issues will be resolved easily.
The two governments should also look at regular high-level reciprocal visits from a global perspective. The rise of China and India as two superpowers in terms of population is of significance. It does not simply represent the rise of the East as opposed to the West. What is more important is that China and India are two great nations on this planet with enough potential to change the look of the world some day. The two countries should take their political relationship beyond geopolitics, beyond bilateral ties, and particularly beyond the confines of security concerns and historical grudges.
The author is a researcher with China Institute of Contemporary International Relations
(China Daily 01/14/2008 page4)