Handshake across the Himalayas

Print edition : June 14, 2013

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before a meeting in New Delhi on May 20. Photo: Saurabh Das/AP

Li addresses a business summit in Mumbai on May 21. The visiting Premier promised to open China's vast domestic market to India. Photo: PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP

The chief thrust during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit was on building greater trust between the two countries, which together have more than one-third of the world’s population.

THE visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India, the first overseas visit since he took office, is a strong signal from the new Chinese leadership that it attaches the utmost importance to fostering good bilateral relations. The visit came on the heels of the recent “incident”, as both sides prefer to call it, that occurred along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). It had briefly threatened to go out of hand before better sense prevailed on both sides. During Li’s visit, both sides pledged to create an atmosphere that would prevent such incidents.

The border issue was high on the agenda of the bilateral talks. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, addressing a joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart, said that “peace and tranquillity on the borders” was essential for friendly relations. He said that the leaderships of the two countries were in agreement “that an early resolution of the boundary question” would benefit both sides. Li responded by saying that both sides were convinced of the need to “improve various border-related mechanisms” that are in place. “We need to appropriately manage and resolve our differences,” Li said in his media address. Manmohan Singh also agreed that the peaceful resolution of the recent “incident in the Depsang sector” showed that the mechanisms already in place had proved their effectiveness.

Li reiterated many times during his visit that the Chinese side was not shying away from finding a resolution to the boundary question “left over from history”. Before Li’s visit, Indian officials had indicated that there would be discussions on the Chinese proposal of a border cooperation defence agreement. The Indian Ambassador to China, S. Jaishankar, however, revealed to the media in Delhi that the subject did not figure in the high-level discussions. He said that the Chinese side had sent its proposal in early March and that India had responded only in the second week of May. According to the Indian diplomat, the Chinese side did not have enough time to study the Indian response in detail. He did admit that there were “issues” to be ironed out but said that shared interests outweighed the differences.

Trust and trade

The chief thrust during Li’s visit was on building greater trust between the two countries, which together have more than one-third of the world’s population. The economies of both are in relatively good shape in comparison with those of the West. In his speeches, Li emphasised that the two economies could together be the engine for global growth. He led a huge delegation, representing big Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE. Bilateral trade stood at $66 billion in 2012. Both sides aim to raise it to $100 billion by 2015. China is already India’s largest trading partner.

Among the topics that came up for discussion was the need for more cooperation in infrastructure development and energy projects. These are the two areas in which India is keen to correct the trade imbalance it has with China, which currently stands at $40.77 billion. Li called for a “dynamic balance” in bilateral trade. At a meeting organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), he assured the business community that Beijing would encourage Indian investments. “India and China are huge markets with huge potential. We will support Chinese enterprises to increase investments in India and help Indian products to have access to Chinese markets,” Li said in his speech. In terms of GDP and per capita GDP, the Chinese economy is three times bigger than the Indian economy. China’s trade with India constitutes around 2 per cent of its overall trade. On the other hand, 10 per cent of India’s trade is with China.

The two sides talked about the possibility of opening a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor that would link South Asia with South-East and East Asia.

Eight agreements were signed, on cultural relations, bilateral nuclear cooperation, the sharing of water resources, and so on. Ambassador Jaishankar said that cooperation in the nuclear field is “a natural outcome” as India and China together have the largest planned civilian nuclear programmes in the world.

On the concerns raised by India relating to the small dams being constructed by China on the Brahmaputra, the Chinese Premier reiterated that India was always kept in the loop about the run-of-the-river dams that it is constructing in Tibet and that they would not adversely affect the flow of water into India. After his meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the recent summit of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Durban, Manmohan Singh had also acknowledged that the Chinese water management projects would not impede the flow of India’s share of water. The Chinese side, however, did not accede to India’s request for a joint mechanism to monitor hydel projects on the Tibetan plateau. According to the Indian envoy to Beijing, the Chinese side recognised India’s concerns and would not do anything that would harm the country’s interests. The two sides have renewed a five-year flood data sharing agreement.

The other important decisions arrived at during the visit relate to increased military cooperation between the two sides, including joint military exercises. Defence Minister A.K. Antony is likely to visit China in June to hold discussions on a proposed “Border Defence Pact” to maintain tranquillity and peace along the 4,000-km border separating the two countries. He is also expected to firm up plans for a joint maritime exercise in the Arabian Sea. National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon is scheduled to be in Beijing for the 16th round of meeting of the Special Representatives (SR) to discuss the border issue and hammer out a resolution to the long-simmering border dispute.

The joint statement issued during the visit spoke of enhanced cooperation on maritime security. China has been embroiled in maritime disputes with many of its neighbours in East and South-East Asia. Indian officials have said that New Delhi remains neutral in the territorial disputes that have arisen between China and its neighbours but wants the principle of the freedom of navigation to be guaranteed. Indian officials have been emphasising that they want transparent security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region. They deny that India is in any aligning with the United States as it “pivots to the East”. Li’s visit came at a time when the U.S. was exerting increasing pressure on countries such as India and Vietnam to line up behind it as it seeks to encircle China militarily. Even as Li was in the Indian subcontinent, the Barack Obama administration made serious allegations against the Chinese government, saying that its military was engaged in the widespread hacking of U.S. military and industrial sites.

Between a relative and a neighbour

The Obama administration and the new Japanese government led by the militarist Shinzo Abe have been urging India to line up behind a planned anti-China alliance. Before the Chinese Premier came to India, the hawkish Deputy Prime Minister of Japan, Taro Aso, was in New Delhi talking of the dangers posed by China to the region. Manmohan Singh is due to visit Japan in June. A Chinese Defence White Paper released in April warns about the dangers posed by a “hegemonic power” that has “strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the region tenser”. Japan, the principal ally of the U.S. in the region, is specifically mentioned as “making trouble” by raking up regional disputes. In his speech on May 21, Li alluded to the desire of the U.S. and its close allies to strengthen relations with India to the detriment of China. A country, he said, can choose its friends, but not its neighbours. But then he quoted a Chinese proverb, to the effect that “a distant relative may not be as useful as a near neighbour”.

“India as well as China is too big to be influenced by a third country,” according to Nalin Surie, a recently retired Indian diplomat who had served as Ambassador to China. “The two sides are committed to taking a positive view of each and support each other’s friendship with other countries,” the joint statement released during Li’s visit stated. The two sides also stressed that their territories would not be used “for activities against each other”. The Chinese side did raise the issue of the Dalai Lama indulging in “splittist” politics from his headquarters in Dharamsala. This for China is the “core issue” that is acting as an impediment to better bilateral relations. The Indian side continues to insist that the Dalai Lama immerses himself purely in spiritual activities on Indian soil. The joint statement did not mention the Tibet issue. The Chinese Defence White Paper has underlined “separatism” among the Tibetans and the Uyghurs as one of the biggest threats to China’s national unity.

Both sides have openly admitted to having differences of view on some international issues. India is not too happy with China’s “all-weather” friendship with Pakistan. (Islamabad was the next port of call for Li after he left Indian shores.) India has objected to Chinese companies building infrastructure projects in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has said that both sides held “very specific decisions” on various issues. During his Pakistan visit, Li reaffirmed the “all-weather friendship” with Islamabad. He pledged to deepen ties “irrespective of the international situation”. China had assumed operation control of the Gwadar port early this year. It is worried about the emerging scenario in Afghanistan and the presence of terrorist networks, including Uyghur separatist groups, inside Pakistan. The issue no doubt figured in the talks held there.

What impressed the media and politicians in India was Li’s outgoing personality. The last Chinese Premier who exuded a similar kind of charm was Zhou Enlai when he visited India in the heydays of “Hindi Chini bhai bhai” period in the mid-1950s. Li went out of his way to charm his audience, stressing the commonalities between the two cultures. In an open meeting on May 21, he said that while Indian movies, songs and yoga were popular in his country the same could be said of Chinese martial arts and cuisine in India. “The most important outcome of these meetings we had was that we expanded our strategic mutual trust and reached a number of new positive outcomes…. When India and China speak in one voice, the world will and must listen. What we need is a handshake across the Himalayas,” Li told an audience of diplomats, scholars and mediapersons.

During his visit to Mumbai to meet with the heads of industry, Li took time off to meet with the family of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis, the legendary medical practitioner who went to China during the Second World War, when parts of the country were under Japanese occupation that coincided with a plague outbreak. Li met with the doctor’s only surviving sister, Manorama Kotnis, 92. The Chinese government expressed a desire to build a hospital in Maharashtra to honour the memory of the late doctor.

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