The minister's itinerary includes official talks, meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao, honouring Indologist Ji Xianlin and opening of an Indian consulate general office in Guangzhou. China has said the visit would promote 'mutual political trust' and 'push forward the Sino-Indian Strategic Cooperative Partnership'.
The pre-visit atmosphere is clearly marked by a string of notable breakthroughs on the external front for China; most encouraging for Beijing has been the impact of the Sichuan earthquake on its international ties; the Tibet issue which has inflicted considerable damage to China's image globally, now stands sidelined, leaving the centrestage to the sympathy and support to relief efforts pouring into China from the rest of the world.
In response, the top Chinese leadership has demonstrated its sincerity to the outside world, by directly handling the quake crisis along with a great degree of transparency.
Next in importance is Beijing's ability to restore normal relations with Japan, bring favourable equational changes in the cross-Straits relations, forge closer ties with Russia under a new president and carefully manage ties with the US, all through the mechanism of high level exchanges of visits. President Hu Jintao's visit to Japan, described as a 'new benchmark' in bilateral ties, has resulted in an agreement that each side is not a threat to the other.
Following KMT Chairman Wu Po Hsiung's visit to Beijing, the two sides have agreed to resume formal talks on the reunification issue.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev chose China for his first visit abroad since assumption of office and the occasion saw further boosting of the 'strategic partnership of coordination' between the two sides. On ties with the US, Beijing is to share responsibility with Washington for the world economy (Hu Jintao-Henry Paulson talks, Beijing, April 2, 2008) and carry out military ties with the US in a strategic perspective (Defence Minister Liang Guanglie, to visiting US Marine Corps Commander James Conway, April 1, 2008).
Overall, against the backdrop of such external successes, Mukherjee and his entourage are definite to face an increasingly self-confident set of Chinese interlocutors.
On bilateral ties, the scenario prior to the visit offers a mixed picture of progress and problems. Important to note on the positive side has been the Sino-Indian agreement reached when the Indian prime minister visited Beijing in January, on 'not letting the long running differences' on territories to 'cloud' their relations and entrusting the Special Representatives with the job of speeding up efforts to 'achieve a workable and fair framework for settling the boundary issue on the basis of mutual understanding'.
Other signals include Beijing's readiness to offer civil nuclear cooperation to New Delhi, its satisfaction over India's handling of the Tibetan protestors in the country, progress in bilateral defence ties (the second China-India defence dialogue is due this year, along with another joint military exercise) and India's offer of $5 million towards earthquake relief efforts in China.
Last but not the least, China is poised to become India's biggest trade partner, with bilateral trade volume already touching $40 billion as against the planned growth to the level of $60 billion by 2010. Also, further Sino-Indian talks on Regional Trading Arrangements are likely.
To ignore problem areas in Sino-Indian ties as Mukherjee visits China, will be a mistake. First comes the absence of any progress so far in the talks between the two Special Representatives on the border question. The two sides have exchanged respective draft versions of a framework agreement to settle the issue, but no final picture could emerge as of now.
There appears to be no change in China's claims over the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing continues to call this state as 'part of southern Tibet'. It has even opposed the visit to the state made by the Indian prime minister.
Secondly, a matter of concern for the Indian public opinion is China's apparent ambivalent stand on the status of Sikkim. In spite of recognition to Sikkim as part of India already given by Beijing, China's objections some time back to India building bunkers in that state and the recent raising of an issue over a portion of land in Sikkim's northern extremity, called the 'finger area' by India, have raised questions about China's real intentions.
A third notable point of dissatisfaction to India arises from China's clear reluctance to commit overtly in favour of New Delhi's permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Beijing's support to India's 'desire to play a greater role in the UN including in the Security Council' no doubt figured in the Sino-Indian 'Shared Vision' document (Beijing, January 2008).
More or less the same position was adopted by Beijing at the recent China-Russia-India trilateral meeting of foreign ministers, held in Yekaterinburg, Russia; the international press at the same time have firmly indicated that Beijing blocked Russia's proposal to include the expression of support to India's UN Security Council membership, in the joint communique to be released on the occasion.
Four more points of concerns for India need noting in the context of the visit: China's strategic suspicions over the growing Indo-US relations; differences with Beijing on the role of the Dalai Lama concerning the Tibet unrest (Beijing believes the spiritual leader is the main instigator of the unrest, which view is not shared by New Delhi); China's reported setting up of a submarine nuclear base in its Hainan province, which has security implications for New Delhi; and the hesitation of the PRC to accept India as a full and equal partner in the East Asia integration process.
What do the Chinese government-controlled think tanks and media say about India in the run-up to Mukherjee's visit? Needless to mention, it would be necessary for the Indian side to study the implications of their pronouncements while making preparations for the visit.
To start with, a trend directly naming India as an emerging threat to China began as early as mid-March, almost coinciding with the beginning of the unrest in Tibet. Authoritative articles have then alleged that India is strengthening its border troops taking China as the enemy, that India views China as the greatest obstacle to realising its global power ambitions, and that New Delhi is colluding with Washington in containing China (Reference Article No 2650 in www.southasiaanalysis.org and Article No 136 in www.c3sindia.org, dated March 28, by the same writer).
Continuing the trend, a very recent article on the China Defence Science and Technology information web site (Chinese language, May 29, 2008) has alleged that in order to 'resist' China, India is forcefully implementing a programme to augment its naval and nuclear strength. The journal Military Outlook (Junshi Liaowang, Chinese, May 31, 2008) has elaborated on the theme further; making a reference to India's Agni IV missile programme, and has accused India of nurturing ambitions to become an ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) power, capable of threatening not only the Asia-Pacific region, but also other parts of the world.
Pointing out that at present there are only five countries in the world possessing ICBM capabilities the US, Russia, China, the UK and France -- it also said Japan, another nation in China's neighbourhood, has the potentials to make and deploy ICBMs. The Chinese media also covered the Sikkim 'finger area' controversy; a Global Times despatch (Chinese, May 31, 2008) quoted Indian press reports as saying that India will talk to China on any issue arising out of the border survey activities being carried out in Sikkim by the Survey of India.
What can be expected from Mukherjee's visit to China? With full details of the agenda for discussions remaining not open to the public, a clear picture may not be available at this juncture. It can be said, however, that a breakthrough on the boundary issue seems very unlikely, as the two sides appear to have failed so far in finalising a 'framework' for the settlement. China and India, instead, may choose to reiterate their known positions of not allowing the boundary problem to come in the way of promoting overall bilateral ties.
Secondly, the Sino-Indian perceptional differences on the Dalai Lama's role may continue despite talks during the visit; significant in this context is the admission by Premier Wen himself that the Tibet issue is a sensitive one in bilateral ties. In the background of Beijing's earlier positions, any expectation that the visit may witness a fresh Chinese thinking on the question of India's UN Security Council membership would be misplaced.
In Premier Wen Jiabao's words, 'China and India are cooperative partners, rather than competitors'. China's strategic and military media, on other hand, is looking at India as a threat to it. India should understand why China is speaking in two voices. It should realise that 'partnership' with New Delhi only marks a tactical phase for Beijing, while strategically China's fears of India seem to persist.
The first stage of China's modernisation plan is expected to be complete in 2020 through realisation of the target of quadrupling the GDP. In 2050, China plans to gain the status of a medium developed nation. At some point of time, therefore, the 'peaceful periphery' prerequisite for modernisation may become irrelevant for China. This will have implications for the future of PRC's 'harmonious world' external policy.
Thus, while New Delhi is correct in following an 'engaging' China policy now, it should not lose sight of China's potential for rivalry with India in a long term. At this juncture, questions are being raised in India as to why New Delhi is silent on the human rights violations in Tibet, repeating its position of Tibet as being a part of China often when Beijing is adamant on its claims over Arunachal Pradesh and defending Chinese border intrusions as a result of differing perceptions on the Line of Actual Control. These look justified and it would be in India's interests to strike a balance between the urge for 'engagement' and the imperatives for firmness, while dealing with China.
D S Rajan is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai. The views expressed are his own.