China’s South Asia tour: win-win meets zero sum

December 20, 2010

wenJust over a year ago, President Barack Obama suggested during a visit to Beijing that China and the United States could cooperate on bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  As I wrote at the time, China — Islamabad’s most loyal partner — was an obvious country to turn to for help in working out how to deal with Pakistan.  Its economy would be the first to gain from greater regional stability which opened up trade routes and improved its access to energy supplies. And it also shared some of Washington’s concerns about Islamist militancy, particularly if this were to spread unrest in its Muslim Xinjiang region.

The big question was whether the suggestion would fall foul of the zero sum game thinking which has bedevilled relations between India, Pakistan and China for nearly 50 years.  India was defeated by China in a border war in 1962 and since then has regarded it as its main military threat. Pakistan has built close ties with China to offset what it sees as its own main military threat from its much larger neighbour India. China in turn has been able to use its relationship with Pakistan to clip India’s wings and curb any ambitions it has at regional hegemony.

So where does Obama’s suggestion stand now that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has just completed a visit to both India and Pakistan?  The answer to that probably depends on how far economics and how far politics determine the behaviour of India and Pakistan in the coming years. China itself is seen as putting its economic interests first, or in the words of the People’s Daily, a search for “win-win results consistently dominate China’s diplomacy”.

In India, Wen offered expanded trade and greater cooperation between two countries which increasingly have reason to align their positions in negotiations within the G-20 economies. That is positive for those whose world view is seen through the lens of economic development –among them Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In an editorial in The Hindu, Siddharth Varadarajan argues that India needs to stop focusing so much on China as a strategic threat and take advantage of the gains it can reap from Chinese economic growth.  And while expanding trade left India with a $16 billion trade deficit with China in 2007-2008, you can argue that India could still be a long-term beneficiary if rising Chinese wages open up space for cheaper Indian manufacturing.

However, at the same time the two countries apparently failed to make any progress on the political and strategic issues which divide them, among them their disputed border and Chinese support for Pakistan.  That is a worry for those who focus primarily on the strategic, rather than the economic, environment in South Asia — particularly given that both Beijing and Delhi have become much scratchier about their political disputes in the last few years. 

“During the first visit of a major Chinese leader to India in more than four years, some easing of political tensions should have been accomplished. Instead the two sides decided to kick all contentious issues down the road and expand bilateral trade by two-thirds over the next five years. However, increased trade is no panacea for the sharpening geopolitical rivalry,”  Brahma Chellaney wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

In short, there is no real consensus on what to make of Wen’s visit as India grapples with growing Chinese power and tries to decide whether to hitch a ride on the coat tails of China’s economic growth or stand up to it.

In Pakistan, the picture was no less complicated.

Wen praised Pakistan’s efforts to tackle Islamist militants at a time when the United States is pushing Islamabad to “do more”.  But China has also been leaning on Pakistan to crack down on militants.  It broke ranks with Islamabad when it supported a U.N. Security Council ban on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) after the November 2008 attack on Mumbai.  In Pakistan, the JuD continues to operate openly, albeit under a different name.

Wen also promoted trade and investment with Pakistan.  During his visit, the two countries signed commercial and trade deals worth at least $25 billion. By comparison, Wen signed $16 billion in deals in India. But for all its reputation as an all-weather friend, China refused to bail out the Pakistani economy in 2008, forcing it to turn instead to the International Monetary Fund. That decision, amongst others, prompted a rethink about whether relations with China were quite as cosy as Pakistan thinks – though those questions appeared to have been forgotten during Wen’s visit.

No doubt much energy will be expended trying to work out the signals from Wen’s tour of South Asia. Did he, or did he not rebuke the United States over its pressure to “do more” - a guaranteed winner in Pakistan where Washington is deeply unpopular? Or is China’s position actually nearer to that of the United States, which also presents itself as an ally struggling to balance, in Admiral Mike Mullen’s rather curious choice of words, strategic impatience with strategic patience? And has China stepped up its support for old ally Pakistan at India’s expense, or is it trying to keep Delhi on board given India’s growing economy?

It is going to be awfully hard to tell for sure. Everyone is talking from a different perspective, depending on whether you prioritise economic issues or political and strategic disputes. And we are speaking in different languages.  Since partition in 1947, relations between India and Pakistan have been dominated by zero sum game thinking. China officially is talking about ”win-win”.

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