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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This is a sincere attempt by the new Premier of China to reach out to the Indian People. How much China has changed from '62! It would be a real shame if China and India squander the huge progress made to evolve into significant players in the World stage. The BRICS conference showed why China looks upto India's lead and India too has reciprocated. India has showed great maturity in not towing the US line on matters that affect our interests in Asia. The Chinese know that we have sought an independent line on Iran and also stayed clear of the US moves to contain China. History and culture bind India and China, markets of 2.5 billion provide a reason to grow trade and above all, more can be gained by closer cooperation than lost by simmering distrust.India must seize this opportunity from the Premier's visit to act boldly and signal a new beginning with China


Why are Indians so impervious to truth? I typed the following in another comment almost two days ago. It should have been plenty of time to search for the Henderson-Brooks Report and verify what I said, not to mention the 51 years since the war...

Prior to 1960, there was a de facto control line between China and India. It was Nehru's attempt beginning at 1961 to push the border forward a few hundred yards at a time (called the "Forward Policy") that sparked the 1962 border conflict (really a small scale but nonetheless thorough spanking inflicted on the Indian front line brigades by local Chinese garrisons). China was considered an enemy to both the US and the USSR at the time, however, so as soon as the Cuban missile crisis was resolved, Mao withdrew the troops. 

In another display of his egomania, Mao pulled his troops not to the old de facto control line but to 20 km behind, expecting the losing Indians to reciprocate. The Indians, of course, ignored him, and so we have a 20km wide demilitarized zone, created and maintained unilaterally by the Chinese.

What triggered the latest confrontation was the Indian military's attempt at improving the logistics of supplying one particular outpost. The road was simply too costly and difficult to use, so the Indians decided to build a small airstrip next to the outpost. This would have been all rather routine had the construction work not spilled over to the Chinese side. Although it looked like no-man's land, the Chinese are quite rigorous in keeping the Indians out of this neutral zone created solely out of China's share of the front line. They sent one platoon to stand nose-to-nose against the Indians until the offending structure was demolished.

Although the original decision to build across the de facto border was probably made by mid-level military officers without supervision from the top, the Indian government soon realized that the Chinese had a legitimate cause to act. It had to lie and obfuscate to its own people, however, in order to continue the cover-up after the 1962 defeat. You see, Nehru was too embarrassed to admit his mistake, so he came up with a story about the Chinese launching a "pearl-harbor" style surprise attack. The fact that the Chinese created a 20km neutral zone at their expense is simply incongruent to this story, so it has to be erased from Indian social consciousness also. As a result, the story presented to the public now is that the Chinese strangely send a platoon to threaten the Indian outpost and mysteriously withdraw after diplomatic negotiations. The demolishing of the offending structure has to be covered up too.

This long-running cover-up of the truth behind the 1962 war is the true barrier against improved relationship between China and India. The US wants to keep the countries apart, so it is not surprising that its media simply plays along with the Indian stories. But for their own sake, Indians really need to ask their government to come clean with truth and history. They can start by asking the government to lift the censor on the Henderson-Brooks Report, which was commissioned by Nehru to summarize the events in the 1962 conflict and subsequently banned by Nehru himself when he found the report too forthcoming for his liking. For the rest of us, the report is easily found on the net. Read it and learn. There is no need to be fooled by government cover-ups.

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@duduong - mostly correct, except the interpretation about the recent boundary spat where we have to agree to disagree. But, look at it this way - the border lies very close to indian population centers compared to chinas. India dont have much ground to give. If China is magnanimous and settles giving up a mountain or two - it wouldnt matter to china since the geography and plateau terrain enormously favours china. On the other hand, if china tries to humiliate india again, she can tie you down to asia, and have a highly militarised border which will cripple Chinas global ambitions. China may win the war, but India wont give you the peace. Its your call.