Li Keqiang in New Delhi: Working on Trade and Mutual Trust after Border Dustup

By Katherine Sliney


Premier Li Keqiang visited India attempting to assuage New Delhi following a re-occurrence of a long running border dispute. Source: FriendsofEurope’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

On the heels of a tense, three-week standoff between China and India over disputed territory, Premier Li Keqiang landed in New Delhi on May 19, on his first overseas visit from China since assuming office in March. The next day, Li extended a “handshake across the Himalayas,” emphasizing the need for clearer and more efficient mechanisms for border dispute resolution.

Last month, dozens of Chinese troops in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed 19km over the ill-defined Line of Actual Control (LAC), set up camp, and refused to leave. The area in dispute is in the western sector of Aksai Chin, considered by India as part of its Ladakh district in the northeastern state of Jammu and Kasmir and by China as part of its westernmost Xinjiang province. Border tensions periodically occur along the LAC, the de-facto Himalayan border, but are generally quickly resolved.

Now a month after the dispute began, the PLA’s motivations behind its choice of timing for the confrontation are still unclear. China is currently embroiled in a series of other territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea – April’s stand-off seemed inopportune to revisit claims with a neighbor with whom diplomatic relations have been relatively healthy and fruitful.

Indian press, tending to hype such disputes, characterized Sino-Indian relations as deteriorating after a series of peacekeeping mechanisms failed to resolve the situation. Indian media urged the government to act, demanding a stronger military response. Historical reminders of India’s 1962 defeat by China still fuel feelings of insecurity among Indians; 83 percent of Indians view China as threat. Political disputes at home have also stunted India’s formation of concrete policy towards the disputed territory, contributing to Indians’ general attitude of mistrust.

Official sources stressed the border issue would overshadow the opportunity for increased cooperation on Sino-Indian trade and investment, the focus of Li’s visit to India, ballyhooed by China’s press. China has shown interest in cooperating with India not only economically, but also politically. For example, both share interests in maintaining stability in the Af-Pak region.

Even though China and India haven’t been able to agree on their shared Himalayan border, Sino-Indian cooperation has been primarily the norm, rather than the exception. A recent joint statement indicated that the two countries take the relationship as a serious “opportunity for economic and social development.”  China is India’s second largest trade partner; commerce between the two nations totaled $66.5 billion last year.  Both aim for Sino-Indian bilateral trade to reach $100 billion by 2015.

During the three-day visit, Li met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee of India, as well as Hamid Ansari, Chairman of the Rajya Sabha in India’s Parliament and Vice President. Li’s visit also follows a recent meeting between the two nations’ foreign ministers. These meetings are a clear indication of China and India’s commitment to working on their bilateral relationship and to deepening Sino-India economic engagement, however, it remains to be seen whether these high-level talks will assuage the two countries’ suspicions of one another. As one Xinhua editorial notes, “the two nations cannot fully restore mutual trust without resolving the border dispute.” Both sides will have to think strategically as they define their roles in the region. Going forward, they must work together to counter mutual feelings of mistrust as the two developing, regional powers’ influence grows within Asia.

India’s relationship with China will likely only grow in importance; India will have to put aside historical grievances and domestic political infighting to develop an effective partnership with China. China, for its part, will have to be more transparent in explaining its hot-cold behavior in order to assure India of its intentions for a peaceful rise. Both sides need to reassure military build-up doesn’t signal a change of heart or strategic intentions for the bilateral relationship. Further economic integration could go along way, but will not address the unfinished business that is creating fissures in the bedrock of the Sino-Indian relationship.

Ms. Katherine Sliney is a researcher with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS.


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