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The friendly Chinaman

delhi Updated: May 24, 2013 02:13 IST
Jayanth Jacob
Jayanth Jacob
Hindustan Times
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As an old Chinese saying goes, reading enriches a man, conversation makes him shrewd.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, 57, came across as an engaging conversationalist, impressing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his team as well as curious mediapersons with his candour and problem-solving approach to bilateral relations during his recent visit to India.

What the Indian side also found interesting was the sprinkling of Chinese proverbs Li narrated between the diplomatese.

But beyond the Chinese sayings, Li shrewdly got down to business and made incremental progress on three significant areas — the border dispute, Indian concerns on the growing trade imbalance and sharing information on trans-border rivers.

What prompted Li to make friendly overtures weeks after its troops pitched tents 19 km inside Indian territory in Ladakh’s Depsang Valley?

Some officials in India’s foreign policy establishment see the overtures as China’s disinclination to open another hostile front beyond a point and add to its problems in southeast Asia. These include its territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and South Korea.

“China is already entangled in territorial disputes with many countries in the region. Most of them don’t see China’s rise as benign. That’s why China ought to be cautious on the boundary dispute with India,” said an Indian official.

China also sees the rebalancing of power in the region by the US as an important part of Beijing’s geopolitical interests.

China also factors in the huge international goodwill India enjoys on the strength of it being a democracy with a growing liberal economy and huge market. And it is in the good books of the major world powers.

On another plane, Indian officials interpret Li’s overtures as an attempt by Beijing to nudge New Delhi to sign the border defence cooperation agreement between the two countries that would give China more strategic leverage along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). That India is unlikely to accept the Chinese proposals is another matter.

Interestingly, Li’s push for peace along the border and an early resolution of the dispute came after Singh’s assertion that peace and tranquillity along the LAC is the foundation of bilateral ties between India and China and that any disruption would impact the bilateral relationship.

But the Indian security and foreign policy establishment is not yet clear about the motives and timing behind the Depsang Valley incursion. “We need further assessments why it took place. Many theories are floating around but it’s too early to come to a conclusion,” said an official.

Bejing has also been concerned about India’s rapid infrastructure development along the LAC. There have also been minor incidents between patrolling troops from both sides in the recent past.

Seen in the context of an assertive China’s economic and military might, the eight bilateral agreements signed during Li’s visit — his first foreign trip after becoming premier in March – mark small but positive steps that could enable the building of trust between the two countries.

As an Indian official summed up the substance of Li’s visit, “The success of the trip depends on how effectively India and China will manage the elements of cooperation and competition in their relationship.”