India-China bilateral relations

Crossing the river, feeling the stones

Print edition : June 14, 2013

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in the Purple Hall of the central leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, on May 10.

Li meets the Indian youth delegation at the Zhongnanhai in Beijing on May 15. Photo: PTI

There is a sense in Beijing that the Depsang incident might eventually end up having a positive effect on bilateral ties by forcing both countries into a more realistic conversation of where the bilateral realtionship is.

FOUR days before he was to fly out to New Delhi, Li Keqiang, China’s Premier, invited a visiting delegation of 100 Indian students to Zhongnanhai, the vast and reclusive central leadership compound in the heart of Beijing that sits, perhaps fittingly, beside the Forbidden City—the historic symbol of imperial power. It is not often that youth delegations are invited to Zhongnanhai, or for that matter, given audiences with the Chinese Premier. Two years ago, a 500-member youth delegation from India was addressed by the then Premier Wen Jiabao. That meeting took place at the Great Hall of the People, the parliament building used for official functions. Usually, only visiting heads of state or Cabinet-rank leaders are given a glimpse inside the high walls of Zhongnanhai. The prerequisite for a trip to the compound is a meeting with a Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member.

In early May, when Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid travelled to Beijing to prepare for Li’s visit, the Chinese Premier confided to him that he decided to make India the first destination of his first overseas visit as Premier after “careful thought”. It was apparent that Li, a charismatic and energetic 57-year-old who is the second-ranked member on the PBSC behind President and General Secretary Xi Jinping, was keen to use the youth delegation’s visit to set the right tone for his trip to India. During his meeting with the delegation, Li revealed, for the first time, what he described as a deep personal connection he had with India. He said he had visited India 27 years ago, when he was a Communist Youth League member. That visit, he said, had left a “lasting impact” on him and created a personal bond and that it was one of the reasons for his decision to make India the first stop on his tour of four nations, the other three being Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany.

The apparent signalling from Beijing was that the new leadership, which took over in March from the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration following a once-in-10-years transition, was looking to use the visit to reboot ties with India. The first years of the Hu-Wen leadership, which came to power in 2002, were also marked by similar tentative signalling from the Chinese leadership. In the lead-up to Wen’s 2005 visit to India, there were even suggestions of a possible breakthrough on the long-running boundary dispute. His visit ultimately yielded a not insignificant agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles and an official withdrawal of Chinese claims on Sikkim. However, it fell short of expectations in some quarters that it would bring a game-changing agreement.

Wen’s visit was subsequently followed by a return to the familiar pattern of uncertain relations, marked by, on the one hand, deepening cooperation on trade and global issues where both countries had similar interests, and, on the other, persisting strategic mistrust on the border and Tibet. Differences on the boundary issue resurfaced, with China becoming more assertive on its claims on Arunachal Pradesh. Any notion of 2005 emerging as a “turning point” in ties, as some Chinese analysts had suggested at the time, quickly dissipated, with India, through the civilian nuclear deal, entering into a deeper strategic embrace with the United States.

Resorting to firefighting

Would Li’s visit mark another turning point? The official Xinhua news agency in a commentary issued before his departure for New Delhi said Li’s “choice of India as the first leg” of his maiden overseas tour as Premier “sent out a clear signal that Beijing’s new leadership prioritises enhancing ties with New Delhi despite border spats and other disputes”. “The China-India relationship is more about the future than about the past,” the commentary said. “It is with such a forward-looking mind that China’s new leadership has decided to take new initiatives to further deepen bilateral ties and mutual trust. Li’s upcoming trip will be a crucial step in that direction.”

By the time Li would arrive in India on May 19, however, talk in Beijing of a reboot in bilateral relations had quickly given way to firefighting. The three-week-long stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in Depsang, in eastern Ladakh, quickly lowered expectations before Li’s arrival in New Delhi. From suggesting a significant upgrading of the relationship, commentaries in state media instead began to highlight the far less lofty objective of not allowing boundary tensions to derail the relationship. Xinhua summarised that the visit was, in the final analysis, “a meaningful step forward”, rather than the start of a “new chapter” as one commentary suggested, before the Ladakh stand-off.

Chinese officials often like to quote the much-repeated Chinese saying that crises yield opportunities. There is a sense in Beijing that the Depsang incident might eventually end up having a positive effect on bilateral ties by forcing both countries into a more realistic conversation of where the bilateral relationship is. Rather than seek comfort in the opaque rhetoric of harmonious Asian civilisations and ignore persisting problems, the hope is that both countries might, instead, attempt to confront those issues more meaningfully.

The Chinese Ambassador to India, Wei Wei, suggested as much in a commentary published prominently on the front page of the People’s Daily overseas edition on the first day of the visit. Rejecting lofty rhetoric, Wei identified the specific problems challenging the relationship, striking a tone of candour rarely seen in official commentaries. He addressed India’s anxieties over China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean Region, from its investments in port projects, such as Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, to the more frequent deployments on anti-piracy missions.

China, at the same time, has been wary of India’s engagement with countries such as Vietnam and Japan, with which China is embroiled in maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas. As India takes forward long-overdue endeavours to engage more intensely with the Asia-Pacific region and China becomes more active in protecting its interests in the Indian Ocean Region, which are closely tied to its energy security, both countries have been slow to engage with each other on new issues that arise as their interests spread to overlapping theatres. Wei suggested such a conversation was needed. “China has legitimate interest in the Indian Ocean, and India also has legitimate interest in the Pacific,” he argued. “These are not in contradiction with each other.”

On the boundary issue, he said both countries would “need to have enough confidence” that existing mechanisms, such as on-the-ground flag meetings and the working mechanism for consultation and coordination on border affairs between the foreign Ministries, would settle differences peacefully. “To achieve this goal,” he said, “both sides have to be rational, they should properly control their differences, refrain from upgrading the issue, and not let the problems affect the overall situation of Sino-Indian relations.”

While the Depsang stand-off took three weeks to resolve, Chinese officials say with some satisfaction that the mechanism in place worked, albeit too slowly. A Xinhua commentary issued after Li’s visit acknowledged that there was a need to make mechanisms more effective. It said one of the successful outcomes of Li’s visit was underscoring that need, with both countries agreeing “to improve the various border-related mechanisms and make them more efficient”.

Temporary & localised

What sparked the Depsang stand-off still remains unclear. While strategic analysts in Delhi have given half a dozen explanations, the truth is we may never know what motivated the People’s Liberation Army to pitch four tents on the night of April 15 on the remote plains of Depsang. Chinese analysts, expectedly, seem to agree with the Indian government’s description of the incident as a localised one, rejecting notions that it was part of any grand strategy or signalling. They point to the fact that the PLA deployment was not heavily armed and not strongly supported logistically, suggesting it was always going to be a temporary move. They suggest the move was, most probably, a reaction to some earlier Indian move along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), part of a long sequence of like-for-like moves along the disputed border that is only likely to continue as long as claim-lines remain opaque and overlapping. Whether the incident will prompt China to rethink its refusal to have an open exchange with India on its perceptions of the LAC remains unclear.

The 16th round of talks between the Special Representatives on the boundary question, expected to take place in the next few months, will provide a platform to address some of the problems highlighted by the Ladakh stand-off. The Joint Statement issued after Li’s visit suggested both sides might look to inject some momentum into the Special Representatives process in the wake of the Depsang incident.

Will Li’s visit set the tone for India and China to have a more frank conversation about persisting problems? With National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Defence Minister A.K. Antony expected to visit Beijing in coming months before the scheduled visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh later this year, there will certainly be adequate opportunities for both countries to begin this conversation. Whether they will choose to do so remains to be seen.

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