The current 10-day, four-nation tour of South Asia by China's
prime minister, Wen Jiabao, is at one level a triumphal affair. Here is the
outwardly modest Wen basking in China's success, spreading the gospel of good
will to these neighbors whose combined populations equals that of China. Here is
a China that will give aid, help them escape from poverty, make Asians proud and
speak up for multilateralism and the United Nations system - articles of faith
throughout the subcontinent.
But Wen's tour is also a reminder that
China's global economic influence is now a factor in relations between the
states of South Asia in a way that China's ideology never was. It thus presents
India, anxious both to develop its strategic relationship with the United States
and be the leader of South Asian economic integration, with awkward balancing
Wen will visit India last but longest,
flattering Indian egos with a trip to high-tech Bangalore and hearing eloquent
Indian rhetoric about a new era of Asian cooperation driven by mutual economic
interests. Trade has indeed been increasing rapidly as China sells manufactured
goods and buys iron ore from India. Commerce may keep border disputes and
Beijing's ambiguous attitude to enlargement of the UN Security Council - which
India hopes to join - in the background.
But Wen's visits to Pakistan and
Bangladesh may be at least as significant in suggesting to India that a new
attitude to its immediate neighbors is needed if the subcontinent is to get back
on a par with China. Wen reaffirmed the strength of relations with Pakistan
despite its improved relationship with Washington and past support for the
Taliban. He was keen, too, to emphasize that South Asian countries should "treat
each other as equals," a jab at India that went down well in Pakistan and in
Bangladesh - which feels that it is treated by India as the United States used
to treat Mexico.
Bangladesh is particularly in need of
China's moral support. There is an impression among diplomats here that India's
recent rapprochement with Pakistan has caused New Delhi's propaganda and
intelligence machines to turn more attention to the alleged misdeeds of its
eastern neighbor. On scant evidence, Bangladesh is accused of harboring
insurgents in India's long-troubled northeastern states and of flooding these
states with illegal migrants.
India has endeavored - without success -
to persuade the United States that Bangladesh is on the way to becoming a failed
state of Muslim fundamentalists and assorted gunmen. There is a belief here, not
confined to nationalist Bangladeshis, that India does not want Bangladesh to be
successful as it would demonstrate the potential for relatively small homogenous
states on the subcontinent and would show up the failures of Bihar and other
adjoining Indian states.
Bangladesh cannot escape dependence on
India, which almost entirely surrounds it. It needs more Indian investment and
cross-border trade to integrate markets. Links to Myanmar, Thailand and China
will grow but are no substitute. Many Indo-Bangladeshi disputes are petty or
over matters that neither government fully controls, such as smuggling of goods
and people. But one big issue could drive Bangladesh to seek much closer links
with China - the rivers that are its lifeblood.
India's plans to link river systems
include diverting water from the Brahmaputra, Bangladesh's single largest water
source, into the Ganges. Although India is being urged - most recently in a
World Bank report - to cooperate with its neighbors in sharing waters and
developing hydroelectric potential, it has a tendency to treat Bangladesh as at
best a little brother and at worst a vassal state. That's where the Chinese come
in. The headwaters of the Brahmaputra are in Tibet. Should China thus not also
be party to water-sharing talks? That is not on New Delhi's cooperation agenda.
It is clearly not in China's interest to
be drawn deeply into South Asian disputes. But its prestige and its appearance
of benevolence, magnanimity and success suggest that the newly confident,
outward-looking India needs new approaches to its neighbors. Can India learn
from Wen's triumphant progress through the region that it claims to lead?
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