PM's luncheon meeting with Wen Jiabao unprecedented

Returning home from his visits to Russia and China, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appeared confident that the Chinese leadership was as serious as New Delhi about ensuring a peaceful border.

“There’s a commitment on the part of both China and India that peace and tranquillity on the border is a prerequisite for progress in our relationship,” Dr. Singh told journalists in an interaction on board his plane.

The two sides signed a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement during Dr. Singh’s visit to Beijing. Both sides have described the agreement as a positive step to reducing the tensions on the Line of Actual Control.

Describing China as India’s largest neighbour, a significant economic partner and major presence in the global arena, Dr. Singh said there were many issues on which cooperation between China and India was to the mutual benefit of both.

“It is only through a process of mutual engagement that we will be able to move forward. I am satisfied that my just concluded visit has achieved this purpose,” he said.

Dr. Singh also praised the agreement on trans-border rivers. He said India’s concerns had been put on the table. Though he did not specify the concerns, it is well known that there is anxiety in New Delhi about the number of dams and power projects that China is constructing on the Brahmaputra, about which the Indian side has little information.

Aside from his address to the Party School of the Communist Party of China, the Indian side regards his luncheon meeting with the former Premier, Wen Jiabao, as among the highlights of his engagements during his brief stay in the Chinese capital.

It is unprecedented and unusual that China permits a visiting foreign dignitary to meet a former leader as part of the official engagements during the visit.

Mr. Wen’s meeting with Dr. Singh is being projected as a signal by the new Chinese leadership of its intentions to maintain continuity with the previous dispensation’s India policy.

“We were like two drivers with steady hands on the wheel driving in the right direction,” government sources quoted Mr. Wen saying during the meeting.

Dr. Singh presented him a photograph of the two of them hugging each other during Mr. Wen’s visit to India in 2008, with the words “A decade of friendship” inscribed on it.

Their conversation revolved around the convergences between the two countries, during which Mr. Wen recalled Dr. Singh’s oft repeated statement that there is enough space in the world for the rise of both India and China.

The view on the Chinese side is that the meeting, sought by India and acceded to by Beijing, is an acknowledgement of the role he played in China’s understanding of India.

Mr. Wen is regarded by the Chinese as the leader who urged that India-China relations should be seen in the Asian and global context in order to perceive the strategic opportunities in the relationship.

Ananth Krishnan adds from Beijing:

Thursday’s lunch meeting was only the second public appearance by Mr. Wen following his retirement in March. Earlier this month, Mr. Wen appeared in a rare interview with State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) to speak about the life of the former Party leader, Xi Zhongxun, who is also the father of current President Xi Jinping.

A Chinese source said Mr. Wen had made clear his keenness to meet with Dr Singh, despite the protocol restrictions that limit the public activities of retired leaders, who usually almost immediately disappear from public life after the end of their terms.

Hua Chunying, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said the reason for the meeting was “very simple.” “It is because Wen is an old friend of Prime Minister Singh,” she said. “This kind of arrangement reflects the importance the Chinese side attaches to the visit by Prime Minister Singh”.

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