Li in India: Can China, India move forward?

By ZRG | Updated: May 18, 2013, 21:13 PM IST

Ajay Vaishnav / Zee Research Group

That India is the first leg of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s maiden overseas trip beginning May 19 after the recent flare up at the border highlights opportunities and infirmities in the bilateral ties of two Asian giants.

While boosting bilateral trade is high on Chinese Premier’s agenda given that a big trade delegation is accompanying him, the impact of the latest Chinese incursion 10 kms inside the Indian side of the Line of Control will linger.

If that wasn’t enough, a Chinese think tank published ‘Blue Book’ on India hinting at the possibility of India having a limited two-front war with both Pakistan and China feeding into the mutual mistrust. The challenge for the leadership on both sides, therefore, is to take concerted action to create a positive atmosphere for lasting cooperation. Foremost would be to reaffirm faith in a negotiated settlement of the protracted border dispute.

It’s unfortunate that despite holding 15 rounds of border talks at the special representative level since the mid-1990s, no tangible gains are in sight. While the India-China border is calm as compared to Pakistan side of the Line of Control, the lack of settlement implies both sides stick to their pre-1962 claims. The dispute is over two separate territories: Aksai Chin which is on western sector of the border and Arunachal Pradesh on the eastern sector.

In the west, both China and India lay claim to 38,000 square kilometres of snowy wastelands known as Aksai Chin. Each side has its own perception of the border here with a Line of Actual Control currently separating the territories controlled by India and China. The recent stand-off at Daulat Beg Oldi sector took place here. In the eastern sector, China claims about 90,000 square kilometers to the south of the McMahon Line (agreed to by Britain and Tibet in a secret deal in 1914 and not recognized by China) in what constitutes our Arunachal Pradesh.

There is a broad consensus in academia and think-tanks that resolution of border dispute will invariably require land swap under which India could keep Arunachal while relinquishing claims over Aksai Chin.

What is preventing the two nations from coming to terms with the idea is rooted in history, strategic interest and national pride. India hasn’t forgotten the humiliating defeat of 1962 and believes that China is busy encircling it. Beijing’s whole-hearted support to Islamabad and belligerent stances like stapling and denial of visas to Indians or warning Indian companies to not undertake oil exploration off the Vietnam coast adds fuel to the fire.

Chinese suspicion of India is rooted in New Delhi allowing the Tibetan spiritual guru Dalai Lama to form a government-in-exile from Dharmashala and growing strategic cooperation with the US, Japan, Vietnam and other South-East Asian nations.

Even as these infirmities persist in political and strategic space, economic relations between India and China have grown from strength to strength, with China now being India’s largest trading partner. Made in China goods ranging from Ganesha idols to high-technology products such as mobile phones, laptops and other electronic products have flooded Indian markets. They say there is a bit of a dragon in every Indian’s home. The bilateral trade although in favour of China has grown to around US$ 70 billion. Both sides have set a goal of US$100 billion trade by 2015. The warmth points to a new economic power block (Chindia) in the making.

Another emerging area for cooperation is Afghanistan. The two nations held their first dialogue on Afghanistan in mid-April agreeing to more closely coordinating their positions in the lead up to the 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces. Both New Delhi and Beijing share common concerns on ensuring stability in Afghanistan, particularly in light of their sizeable investments and terrorism. With Beijing on board, India can hope to rein in Pakistani adventurism in Afghan affairs.