Millennium Post

UPA’s foreign policy swansong

As he boarded the flight back to New Delhi after what could be his last foreign trip as the prime minister, Manmohan Singh could well be right if he felt a sense of achievement. Pilloried at home for multiple scams and what the opposition calls ‘policy paralysis’, Singh packed off a busy 2013 international calendar with back-to-back foreign visits to Moscow and Beijing that were apparently more successful over a week than what he has achieved over months back home. At least on paper.

While New Delhi made its presence felt in old friendly ‘neighbourhood’ Kremlin – though it could not clinch a deal for more nuclear reactors for Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, it got Russia on board for perhaps the harshest ever indictment of Pakistan-sponsored ‘terror networks’. China has always been the tougher nut to crack for Indian diplomacy. 

In that sense, the expectations from Singh’s visit were next to non-existent. But, in reality, the fact that both the prime ministers exchanges visits in the same calendar year for the first time in 59 years (in 1954 when Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai exchanged visits), was itself a positive indicator that was overlooked. Against this background, the ‘Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA)’ pact signed by the two countries on 23 October  must be seen as a definite shot in the arm for Singh. According to the new ‘neither side shall use its military capability against the other... and respective military strengths shall not be used to attack the other side.’

Over a lunch hosted by the Chinese premier that must have whetted the appetite of even a frugal eater like Singh-–the meal reportedly comprised hors d’oeuvres, followed by sponge bamboo and mushroom soup, curry-flavoured prawns, beancurd with vegetables, grilled grouper and a dessert selection of sweet potato cream, pastries and fruits–-both sides agreed and disagreed, too.

New Delhi gave a gentle reminder on stapled visa. India did not sign the liberalised visa regime and protested Beijing’s recent instance of issuing stapled visas to two Indian archers from Arunachal Pradesh but at the same time kept the door open. ‘I conveyed to premier Li our commitment to visa simplification to facilitate travel of Chinese nationals to India and expressed the hope that China will also facilitate such exchanges,’ Singh told reporters later. More importantly, the agreement also says, ‘The two sides agree that they shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control in India-China border areas.’ That is the routine border skirmishes, that once in a while threaten to escalate into bigger engagements--such as the Chinese intrusion into the Depsang Bulge area on April 15--might be minimised.

Of course, the history of Indo-China relations and the mistrust among the two does suggest that we should hold over-the-top celebrations and congratulation. It cannot be overlooked that China’s official memory for border pacts is rather short and its commitment to them suspect. A case in point is a similar border pact signed in 2005 that did not help much. So will China, known to suffer from amnesia on major diplomatic pacts, honour the deal this time round? Remember, in this context, the 2005 boundary pact which has almost been removed from official memory of China--it spoke about solving the boundary dispute where the settled population will not be disturbed. The now-inked BDCA, though, makes mention of the 2005 pact: ‘The two sides shall implement this agreement without prejudice to their respective positions on the alignment of the line of actual control as well as on the boundary question.’

Even on the question of terrorism emanating from Pakistan, China’s avowed ‘all weather friend’, New Delhi put it across strongly. ‘Without going into details as to what we told them and what they told us, I can say it did come up. We put it squarely on the table. We will not go into the specifics,’ said foreign secretary Sujatha Singh.

This came close on the heels of the diplomatic coup of sorts in Russia, with the joint statement condemning Pakistan strongly (without naming it). ‘They need to irreversibly shut down terrorist networks, organisations and infrastructure and show tangible movement in investigating and bringing quickly to justice all those responsible for acts of terrorism.’
In the last 66 years, India and China have made some good diplomatic breakthroughs like the Panchsheel agreement and the slogan of hindi-chini bhai-bhai. But China’s ‘knockout blow’ in 1962, its reneging on agreements of 1993, 1996 and 2005 to work on boundary dispute and the regular border skirmishes make it difficult to appreciate what has been achieved in this visit. It remains to be seen how this one plays out, but for now, kudos Singh!

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