Even for someone as well-versed with realpolitik and high table diplomacy as national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, the 19-kilometer deep incursion by a platoon of the Chinese Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA) into the perceived Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Depsang Plains on April 15 in remote Ladakh came as a big surprise.
What flummoxed Menon and Raisina Hill was not the act but its timing. The beligerence came virtually a month before the first official visit of newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India and was vacated just four days before the preparatory visit of external affairs minister Salman Khurshid to Beijing on May 9.
China watchers believe the Depsang incursion could be a product of the rivalry between the PLA and the PLA Navy, which has recently been aggressive in the East China Sea. This one-upmanship had the unfortunate consequence of reviving bitter memories of the 1962 Indo-China border war. Although the PLA withdrew on May 5 due to tough diplomacy by New Delhi, the incursion has inadvertently cast a shadow on Premier Li's three day visit to India beginning Sunday. See Graphic
The onus is now on Premier Li to bridge the trust deficit as pragmatic India wants to close the Depsang chapter and is genuinely keen to engage China. This is evident from the high profile exchanges lined up for Beijing, with NSA Menon ready to engage State Councillor Yang Jiechi for the 16th round of Special Representative dialogue on the boundary issue next month followed by visits of defence minister AK Antony and PM Manmohan Singh. On his part, Keqiang is expected to sign five of the 16 agreements proposed with India with visa simplification and border defence at a negotiating stage.
Given that both sides want to make the border peaceful, India is inclined to sign the border pact but is prepared for tough negotiations to protect its national interests. There could also be a positive last minute forward movement on a bilateral mechanism to jointly assess the upstream construction projects on the Brahmaputra river as proposed by PM Singh to President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the last BRICS summit at Durban.
With $66 billion in bilateral trade skewed to the extent of $29 billion in favour of Beijing, PM Singh and his delegation will push Keqiang's team for access to the Chinese market while offering India as a safe investment destination for the potential $500 billion kitty with the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese proposal to develop a high speed rail network in India may be on the agenda next week but India is still to take a call due to humongous capital cost and other competitors in the market.
Just as bilateral trade and investment will bring the two countries closer, political issues discussed behind closed doors will inject a reality check into the relationship. Without naming Pakistan, PM Singh had first hinted to President Xi that China's ties with others must not hurt India or become an impediment to bilateral ties, at the Durban Summit. The same concern, along with presence of anti-India insurgent groups in China, will find voice in the bilateral dialogue, with Premier Li expected to raise the Dalai Lama issue.
Significantly, the Indian reiteration for "One China" policy did not reflect for the first time in the joint statement issued even during former premier Wen Jiabao's December 2010 visit to New Delhi. For the UPA government the "One China" policy must be linked to the "One India" policy at a time when Beijing is participating in infrastructure projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said: "India is allowing itself to be managed by China in a way that suits its interests and damages ours. With the growing economic and military gap between us, we are becoming more timid and diffident in dealing with China's challenge to us. The underlying strategy of the Xi Jinping regime, whatever the surface noises, will remain that of squeezing India strategically while tactically reaching out to it to keep it tethered to its present posture of seeking China's goodwill."
Manmohan Singh's government is well aware of the dangers on the road to India-China bonhomie but is pragmatic enough to realise there is enough scope for both countries to grow without being labelled adversaries. New Delhi is willing to engage Beijing on equal footing for it knows that if you are not on the high table with China, then you are on the menu.