In Beijing, and elsewhere too on his visits, Dr. Manmohan Singh was received with conspicuous regard and respect. His interlocutors regard him as a person of wisdom whose views on a variety of issues beyond quotidian everyday matters are illuminating and worth soliciting ~ SALMAN HAIDAR
The Prime Minister has been on a prolonged series of foreign visits. He was at the UN in September to take part in the annual gathering that draws Heads from across the globe, and while in America, he had a successful visit to Washington at the invitation of President Obama. At UN HQ in New York he met many leaders, prominent among them being the Prime Ministers of India&’s neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Off then to Brunei where ASEAN was holding its annual Summit that is a fixture on the Indian PM&’s calendar. And shortly after, he was on his way to Moscow, thereafter to wind up his travels in Beijing, from where he has only recently returned. It must have been a taxing exercise for India&’s leader. Nor is the travelling at an end, for the Commonwealth Heads of Government(CHOGM) meeting is soon to convene in Colombo and the Prime Minister may well attend, though there is considerable sentiment within the Commonwealth for Heads to keep away in protest against Sri Lanka&’s handling of human rights issues.
This flurry of foreign visits and diplomatic activity has been welcomed as a piece of ‘diplomatic overdrive’ and lauded for energising the country&’s foreign policy. A more active and closely engaged India has been seen on the global stage and much has been done to consolidate high-level ties with some of India&’s most important foreign partners. It has not been so much a matter of fresh initiatives as of strengthening and developing existing relationships. Where needed, India&’s core interests have been reiterated, as in the rather edgy meeting between Dr. Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, which seemed to have done little to dispel the current strains between their two countries and generated few expectations of better times ahead. Nevertheless, this period of virtually non-stop activity showed how far India&’s global reach has expanded and how it has assumed a prominent role on the international stage.
Important among the events of this diplomatic odyssey were the bilateral visits to Russia and to China, whose capital cities were visited by Dr Manmohan Singh. In the build-up to the Moscow visit, it had appeared at one stage that a major development in the purchase by India of Russian nuclear power plants may be on the cards and some form of agreement on this complex issue might emerge. Relations between the two countries on this issue have traditionally been excellent, with Russia having been a reliable provider of nuclear technology over the years, even at a time when India was subject to sanctions after the PNE of 1974. The power plants at Koodankulam are the most significant outcome of the collaboration between the two countries, and they would both wish to see the established relationship expand and develop further. However, India has been compelled by its Parliament to place stringent conditions on possible foreign collaborations in this area, which has had a deterrent effect. How to go ahead while conforming to the requirements decreed by Parliament is a complex and difficult task. Russia is not the only country whose nuclear supply companies are trying to find a way onward, for these are very large projects that offer huge benefits to both suppliers and purchasers. The USA has been vocal in this regard, and perhaps feels it has particular claims to prior consideration, as it was the India-US nuclear deal that effectively removed the sanctions and opened the way to Indian purchase of advanced nuclear power equipment from abroad. However, the time for concrete deals in this area has not yet come, as was seen in Moscow, and in Washington before that. Even so, the issue remains a live one that will no doubt continue to receive high-level consideration.
On, then, to Beijing, where quite a lot was expected from Dr. Manmohan Singh&’s visit. In fact, as preparations proceeded it was believed by some that a substantial breakthrough on the unresolved border issue could be within reach; also, questions of the Prime Minister&’s legacy after so many years in office have become more frequent now that the shadows are lengthening for the UPA II government, and there was a sense that notable developments on the China front could be a final embellishment to the Prime Minister&’s achievements in foreign affairs. Realistically, there could be little prospect of a settlement of the border, but it was certainly within grasp to agree on measures for better border management so as to forestall the risk of unwanted incidents. As it is, the India-China border, though armed and patrolled by military forces from the two sides, is comparatively calm as the result of a series of agreements aimed at maintaining peace and tranquility. The stage was thus set for the more far-reaching Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) signed during the visit. This has many useful features and represents a significant advance in effective management of the border, adding to the chain of previous border agreements respectively of 1993, 1996 and 2005. This is how matters seem to advance with China, through carefully studied incremental steps rather than dramatic leaps forward.
It was not all plain sailing in Beijing, however. Both sides recognise that easier travel for business people would be a great encouragement to the intensified economic engagement that they both seek, and at one stage in the preparatory process it was believed that an agreement to this effect would be one of the important outcomes of the visit. However, before the Prime Minister reached it was made known that such an agreement was not on the agenda because the Chinese practice of issuing stapled rather than regular visas to persons from Arunachal Pradesh came in the way of a more general visa agreement. The stapled visa issue was a reminder that China has not shelved its claim to Arunachal Pradesh even though this has not been permitted to interrupt the steady growth of bilateral relations in many other fields.
Among the potentially divisive issues in India-China relations is that of the shared rivers. This subject has been working its way upward on the bilateral agenda as China&’s plans for river development in Tibet become more visible. The issue was discussed in Beijing, perhaps for the first time at such a high level, and the promise of greater transparency about its plans by China is to be welcomed.
In Beijing, and elsewhere too on his visits, Dr. Manmohan Singh was received with conspicuous regard and respect. His interlocutors regard him as a person of wisdom whose views on a variety of issues beyond quotidian everyday matters are illuminating and worth soliciting.
The writer is India’s former foreign secretary