China's leader visits India to urge peace without taking sides

Premier to recommend negotiations after years of supporting Pakistan

January 13, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- When India's ambassador to China arrived for a dinner at the Great Hall of the People here in the early 1970s, Chinese officials served his food early because they knew he wouldn't be staying long.

The two countries were bitter rivals. China strongly backed India's archenemy, Pakistan, and endorsed Pakistan's call for self-determination in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region over which India and Pakistan had fought two wars. During the dinner, Chinese officials spoke out on the Kashmir issue, and India's ambassador walked out in protest.

When Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji arrives in New Delhi today for a six-day visit, he won't be taking sides on Kashmir, the region that has once again brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. Instead, Chinese officials say, Zhu will remain neutral and urge that India and Pakistan try to negotiate a solution.

Zhu's visit and its tone demonstrate how China's policy toward South Asia has evolved since the end of the Cold War. After decades of arming and supporting Pakistan as a proxy against India, China has developed a more balanced and independent relationship with South Asia's archrivals.

The trip, which was planned long before the current tensions in Kashmir, also provides China with a chance to flex its diplomatic muscles after sitting on the sidelines of the Afghan war.

In recent years, China had organized an anti-terrorism group with Russia and six Central Asian states. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Beijing has offered verbal support for a global war against terrorism but played only a marginal role.

Economic considerations

In addition to visiting New Delhi, Zhu will travel to Bombay and Bangalore, where the Chinese hope to learn from India's booming software export industry. The premier's trip is designed to build on steadily improving relations with India and to expand economic ties between the two Asian giants.

From 1995 to 2000, China's trade with India nearly tripled, to $2.9 billion from $1.1 billion. Contact between the nations is still so limited, though, that no direct flights between their capitals exist.

"It's high time for the Chinese premier to pay this visit," said Cheng Ruisheng, who served as China's ambassador to India from 1991 to 1994. "There has been some kind of mistrust in the mind of the Indian government and the mind of the Indian people. To increase these mutual exchanges at the highest level is very important for both countries."

The last Chinese premier to travel to India was Li Peng, who visited in 1991.

For much of the past half-century, Sino-Indian relations have been marked by distrust and rivalry. Some of the tensions have arisen from the countries' similarities, others from differences.

India and China have developing economies and huge populations. They are also ambitious nuclear powers that yearn for international respect.

The two nations share a 2,500-mile border over which they fought a brief, bloody war in 1962.

China claimed that India conducted nuclear tests in 1998 as part of a drive to be recognized as a global power and to gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The tests drew international condemnation and inspired Pakistan to follow with tests of its own.

India said it conducted the nuclear tests because of China, noting a threat from Beijing's nuclear arsenal, its tradition of military support for Pakistan and the nations' unresolved border dispute.

India and China are very different political states. India is the world's largest democracy, though a messy and often inefficient one. China operates under a sometimes brutal, authoritarian system and is home to the last major Communist Party on the planet.

New Delhi's and Beijing's political differences have led to tensions over Tibet. India has served as home for the Tibetan government-in-exile since the Dalai Lama fled there in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

India recognizes Tibet as an autonomous region of China, but provides sanctuary for Tibetan refugees.

One of Tibetan Buddhism's most important figures, the 16-year-old Karmapa Lama, fled from China across the Himalayas in 2000 to northern India, where the Dalai Lama welcomed him. The episode embarrassed China, which has tried to co-opt and control Tibetan religious leaders and portrays its rule there as benevolent.

India handled the case gingerly. Last year, New Delhi quietly granted the boy refugee status.

"Although the Indian government says it does not support the Dalai Lama ... there are different opinions towards the Tibet issue within India," said Shang Huipeng, an Indian specialist at Beijing University. `They [Chinese leaders] don't trust India."

Of the two countries, China has proved by far the better economic performer over the past two decades. Its market reforms have led to higher growth rates, standards of living and levels of foreign investment.

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