In post-Sept. 11 Asia, China now courts India

The Chinese Premier's visit to India this week is the first in more than a decade.

In the changing post-9/11 world of Asia, with America in the region for "the long haul," new and unforeseen relations are quickly emerging.

The latest unfolds this week, as Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visits India - the first real friendship mission between Asia's biggest giants in years.

China-India relations have long swung between a deep freeze and a heavy chill. India has felt a congenital suspicion of its neighbor north of the Himalayas while China has been Pakistan's closest military ally - a separation so concrete that no commercial flights exist between the capitals, Delhi and Beijing.

But Mr. Zhu's five days here, opening with a smiling photo-op at the Taj Mahal, shows the two nations now see the world differently - dramatized by Zhu's swimmingly smooth visit even even as India masses troops against a Pakistan foe that holds Chinese weapons in its quiver.

On Monday, the two states signed agreements to hold higher- level talks on vexing 40-year-old border problems, space and software technology, and antiterrorism issues. And in a sign that a thaw has begun, Eastern China Airlines will start a Beijing-Delhi route in March.

The Chinese position about past Sino-Indian problems is - let them be in the past. Zhu's somewhat ebullient message, from a country of 1.3 billion to another of 1.1 billion, is essentially: Let's discover each other.

"There is not enough understanding between the two peoples," Zhu told Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh in a meeting where he invited both men for a visit to Beijing. "The differences between us are mostly historical baggage."

A more immediately comforting message, given recent extravagant rumors in Delhi about a Chinese attack if India crosses into Pakistan, is Zhu's statement that "China has never viewed India as a threat nor do we believe India will regard China as a threat."

Moreover, despite two recent trips to Beijing by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, China has taken a neutral stand on the current brinkmanship between India and Pakistan.

Delhi's response is officially glad, and unofficially more reserved. "We had reports of Chinese weapons going to Pakistan last week," a foreign ministry official says.

"I don't think relations are static," foreign ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao told the Monitor. "They move, they are being redefined by cooperation. This trip constitutes a higher level of confidence and trust."

While billed principally as an economic exploration, with Zhu meeting business leaders in Bombay and info-tech gurus in Bangalore, China's bid is in fact more a strategic move - borne of the complexities created in a South and Central Asia suddenly infused by American troops and interests.

In a way, China is taking a page from America's own diplomatic playbook, analysts say: If America can suddenly forge close ties with ally Pakistan, China can open to India. With American bases under construction in Central Asia, the US military working closely with General Musharraf, and the US clearly strengthening ties with India, China is concerned about being boxed out of the regional game.

"China is concerned about increased Anglo-American presence in South Asia, and therefore wishes to build new relations with India," G. P. Deshpande, a Sinologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

"If you want to be a regional power, as China does, you have to be on good terms with all players," says a Beijing-based Western analyst. "Being partisan in the post-cold-war world, being only allied to Pakistan, doesn't get you anywhere."

India and China find particularly solid common ground in a shared concern about Islamic radicalism, and terrorism. China has been increasingly worried about its Western region of Xinjiang, which is close to India, and separatist and "extremist" sentiments among the Chinese Muslim Uighur populations there. India can offer China intelligence on the behavior and complexion of extremist cells.

Zhu has suggested that economic trade between the two countries may quickly rise from its relatively paltry $3 billion annually, to some $10 billion. (US-China trade, by contrast, tops $75 billion.)

Yet whether India and China can in the long term sustain flourishing and progressive ties is another matter. India has always felt that China, largely through its aid to Pakistan, expertly keeps its southern neighbor tied to the South Asian continent, and never allows it to emerge as a global player.

In recent months, for example, Chinese President Jiang Zemin traveled to Burma (also called Myanmar) and announced investments in infrastructure there that could lead to a port facility. This would give China naval access to the Bay of Bengal, close to India. It would also allow the Chinese to monitor Indian military behavior. "If China can take the opportunity to develop a port, maybe they should," says Amitabh Mattoo, a China policy expert and member of India's National Security Advisory Board. "But it does deeply threaten India's strategic interests."

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