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The inscrutables


China’s new Premier leaves behind an aura of goodwill but border tensions will overshadow ties, say Ranjit Bhushan and Mayank Singh
RANJIT BHUSHAN AND MAYANK SINGH | Issue Dated: June 2, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : India | China | Chinese Premier | Li Keqiang | Manmohan Singh | Depsang | Boarder dispute | Daulti Beg Oldi | Zorawar Daulet Singh | BDCA | CSG | NSA | |

On May 19, at the 7 Race Course Road private dinner hosted by Manmohan Singh for visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the dignitary told his host how much he had enjoyed Amir Khan’s ‘Three Idiots’ which had been very well received in his country.

It would have been hard to believe by Keqiang’s easy and warm demeanor that little over two weeks ago, the two countries had ended a three-week military standoff in the chilly cold of Ladakh’s Depsang plains after endless military flag meetings and some deft diplomatic maneuverings by New Delhi and its envoy to Beijing S Jaishankar.

While the mutual withdrawal of troops from both sides was interpreted differently by different people, India is seen to have scored a point by extending Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan later this month by one day – an unprecedented request to the Japanese foreign ministry – and a factor which may have prompted the Chinese side to consider the possibility of a withdrawal to pre-April 15 position.

Tensions between China and Japan have flared up recently after Beijing asserted its rights over Senkaku islands, a disputed archipelago claimed and controlled by Japan. Significantly, the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe assured the Diet that he was “willing to use physical force to repel any aggression.’’

In an hour-long chat with Keqiang before the dinner and at official meetings after that, a usually reticent Manmohan Singh sought to use the April 15 Chinese ingress of 19 kms into eastern Ladakh’s Daulti Beg Oldi sector to draw the red line on border incursions, saying that peace and tranquility was the ‘foundation’ of Indo-China relationship and must be maintained. Singh reportedly said that while there are well established mechanisms to deal with a situation like this, in this particular instance it had taken an unusually long time to resolve.

The Chinese side emphasized on its old bug bear, Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, but inked eight agreements in trade, culture and water resources. The Indian response too was well stated: Dalai Lama is a spiritual figure and a guest but he is not allowed any political activity.

But the overall tenor of the Keqiang visit, who first came to India 27 years ago as a Communist youth leader, turned out to be positive. In a leader write up which appeared in The Hindu on March 20, the Chinese Premier, in an apparent effort to assuage Indian feelings post-Ladakh, called for ‘A handshake across the Himalayas’. He wrote: “Both China and India have a long and great history that goes back thousands of years. The Chinese and Indian civilizations are among the oldest of human civilization. They represent the two pillars of the civilization of the East. The towering Himalayas have not prevented them from mutual attraction and illumination….’’

Then again, there were very warm personal references. “When I visited India 27 years ago, I was struck by her warm sunshine, brilliant colours, beautiful arts, hard working and talented people and amazing splendor and diversity. As far as I know, the India of the 21st century is taking a fast track of innovation-driven development…’’

Significantly, this is Keqiang’s first foreign visit after taking over as Premier. He will later visit Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany aimed as a formidable global PR exercise to reassure and engage with the world. According to some observers here, it shows the new Chinese Premier’s willingness to engage with India as well as address its sensitivities on issues of an unequal balance of trade. Its deputy foreign minister Song Tao said last week that “China attaches great importance to the China-India trade deficit issue. We are willing to expand our market for India's products and provide facilitation.’’

Bilateral trade between the two countries touched $73 billion in 2011 – it virtually did not exist in the 1990s - making China India's largest trade partner, but slipped to $66 billion last year. At the meeting, Singh told Keqiang that it was important to balance out trade as the two countries aim for $100 billion in bilateral trade by 2015.

But while diplomacy prevailed in the end, the Indian civilian and defence sectors are apparently at odds on its China policy. Indian army officials say there is no well defined policy on the border. “Border talks have been going on since 2003 without any tangible results,’’ says an expert linked to the talks between the two countries.

China and India disagree about many areas on their 4,056 km long border and fought a brief but bloody war in 1962. This year is the 50th anniversary of that war. While there has not been a major shooting incident in a few years, the long-running border dispute comes in the way of improving economic ties between the world's two most populous and fastest growing economies.

Says  Zorawar Daulet Singh, a China expert, “The Ladakh intrusion was a political signal by Beijing. Now the key question is whether both sides can commit to new confidence-building measures (CBMs) to stabilize the border from heating up again.’’ Given the vastness of the border, any immediate agreement looks unlikely.

Indian army officials say privately that unlike China where defence policy and its modernization programme is a continuous process, in India it is defined by personalities and political parties. They also say that military preparedness and improving diplomatic relations have become mutually exclusive in the Indian context.

Army sources say that China proposed a border defence cooperation agreement (BDCA) a month before the Depsang Valley incident. The details are not clear but when clubbed with the transgression, it seemed a ploy by the Chinese to bind India to agree to its proposals. “It becomes clear if we club it with the demand placed to remove a bunker in Chumar sector of Ladakh, as is being reported,’’ says one official.

While some details have emerged in the several rounds of talks held so far, Indian steps to bolster its defences and offensive capacity along the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) seems to have irked the Chinese. In Ladakh for instance, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has reactivated three forward landing airstrips at Daulet Beg Oldi, Fukche and Nyoma. In addition to raising a strong force in Northeast, it has also placed strategic Sukhoi 30 MKIs. While a new Strike Corps is waiting to be approved, two Army divisions have already been put together for this border.

Importantly, New Delhi’s decisions vis a vis Beijing have increasingly come to be determined by the China Study Group (CSG) headed by National Security Adviser (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon – and a former foreign secretary whose inputs are regarded as most significant by both PMO and the Cabinet Committee on Security. In CSG the highest-ranked military representative is the Vice Chief of the Army Staff apart from the Union Secretaries from Home, Defence and Foreign Ministry and the NSA.

Now some army officials believe the CSG idea needs a re-think. Points out a long-standing China hand,“We need to rethink on China Study Group. Also, our policy (on China) lacks long term perspective and remains personality-oriented which is not good for any country.”

2013 promises to be an interesting milestone in Indo-China relations because it is 10 years since Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit there. It also marks 25 years since Rajiv Gandhi took a forward step to normalize relationship between the two neighbours. With a new leadership in China, it is assumed that they can approach the matter with a fresh mind. At least, that is what India is hoping.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017