Chinese Premier Li’s New Delhi Visit Puts Sino-Indian Ties in the Spotlight

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Left, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrive for a photo opportunity ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on May 20, 2013

New Delhi commuters are not among those likely to be won over by China’s new Premier during his three-day visit to the Indian capital this week. On Monday morning, rush-hour traffic ground to a sweltering halt on one of the hottest days of the year, with cars marooned in a labyrinth of barricades set up to control crowds during Li Keqiang’s first foreign visit since taking office in March. Authorities ramped up security outside the Chinese embassy and shut down metro stations near popular protest spots after Tibetan rights groups said they would stage large protests. The protests were minor, but traffic jams were not. As one Twitter user put it: “O.K., one good reason why I don’t trust Chinese … huge jams and stuck in traffic becoz of them.” Even Kashmir’s chief minister, who was in town for the day, created a hashtag — #delhitrafficmess — to mark the snarl.

Disgruntled drivers, however, probably did not figure prominently on Li’s list of priorities during his first official visit to India. The ground that he and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are expected to cover is vast and unsteady, from a recent flare-up in the neighbors’ long-simmering border dispute to the management of rivers to balancing out bilateral trade. “The purpose of my current visit to India is threefold: to increase mutual trust, to intensify cooperation and to face the future,” Li told reporters on Monday, before the two delegations entered the day’s official talks. “The development and prosperity of the world cannot happen without the simultaneous development of China and India.” Li is also scheduled to visit Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany.

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Li’s first day on the ground in New Delhi was dominated by private talks on the border dispute, which started in April when dozens of Chinese soldiers marched into a region of north India that New Delhi claims is well within its borders. India subsequently deployed troops to camp out next to them, instigating a standoff that ended 21 days later, when the Chinese platoon withdrew. But the sting of the incursion, which many say was a clear display of Beijing flexing its muscle over its militarily weaker neighbor, is still fresh in New Delhi. During private talks on Sunday night, Singh reportedly told Li that the neighbors’ good relationship hinged on a peaceful border.

But while that incident may be the most emotive issue on the table this week, few expect the giants to ever return to war. Improving trade relations and smoothing out resource sharing are the larger, albeit less dramatic, hurdles to sustainable bonhomie between the world’s two largest nations. And from New Delhi’s perspective, making sure India does not get the short end of the stick is paramount.

Earlier this year, India went on the offensive after Chinese media reported that Beijing, as part of its five-year energy plan, was planning to build three dams along a 2,900-km river that originates in the Tibetan Himalayas. Millions of people in India and Bangladesh rely on the cross-boundary river, called the Yarlung Tsangpo in China and the Siang or Brahmaputra in India. Both countries have raised concerns in the past over China’s plans to dam different parts of it. Though Beijing maintains the three proposed dams would not reduce the flow of water downstream, India has requested that a committee be set up to study the issue, and on Monday, the nations signed an agreement to increase information sharing about transborder rivers.

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The larger concern for Singh in particular is closing the trade gap between the two nations. Bilateral trade between the two countries reached $66 billion last year, down from $73 billion in 2011. The neighbors aim to increase trade by 50% within the next two years, but the business flow is heavily lopsided in China’s favor. India, in the midst of a rough few years on the economic front, has been struggling to restore investor confidence at home and abroad, and wants China to buy more Indian goods to balance out the nearly $30 billion trade deficit between the neighbors.

Some progress toward that goal was made during Monday’s talks, at least on paper. In a joint statement, the two nations pledged to “take measures to address the issue of the trade imbalance” by cooperating on “pharmaceutical supervision … stronger links between Chinese enterprises and Indian IT industry, and completion of phytosanitary negotiations on agro-products. The Indian side welcomed Chinese enterprises to invest in India and participate in India’s infrastructure development.” Other agreements signed included a range of deals on issues ranging from cooperating on buffalo-meat production, of which India is the world’s largest exporter, to improving infrastructure for pilgrims. Nothing yet on increasing Chinese aid to assuage New Delhi’s traffic problems, but if Li gets stuck in a jam before he leaves town, you never know.

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