Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, close on the heels of a stand-off over the incursion by Chinese troops in Ladakh, was an opportunity for both sides to calm troubled waters and this is evidently what they have tried to do. The decision to “encourage” the two countries’ Special Representatives on the boundary question “to push forward the process of negotiations” towards a mutually acceptable settlement will hopefully breathe political life into a process that is at a virtual standstill despite 15 rounds of talks. No date has been fixed for the next iteration but from the statements made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Li on Monday, the Chinese side seems as aware as the Indian that this issue is vital to other aspects of the bilateral relationship. Besides dealing with the border issue, both sides seemed to have made the deliberate decision to emphasise the larger strategic and global nature of the relationship. They have added civil nuclear cooperation to the mix, and agreed to enhance co-operation against piracy at sea and other non-traditional threats to maritime security. On trans-border rivers, another problematic area, the two sides have agreed “to further strengthen co-operation” and continue sharing data. Eventually, this process needs to result in a full-blown discussion on riparian issues, given China’s ambitious plans for the Yarlung Tsangpo, which feeds into the Siang and Brahmaputra in India.
Going by the message from Premier Li (‘A handshake across the Himalayas,’ The Hindu, May 20) that his “country will never embark on the doomed path of seeking hegemony,” and his description of the two countries as “destined to be together,” China’s new leadership appears concerned about the fallout of the Depsang incident and keen to allay Indian fears of its intentions. Perhaps as evidence of its sincerity, the Chinese side has made its strongest commitment yet towards addressing the trade imbalance with India. However, the continuing absence of boilerplate language about Tibet being an integral part of China — something the Chinese usually insist on in joint statements with India and others — is a reminder of the many layers to this complex relationship. The first time the ‘T-word’ was dropped was in 2010, and it was evident that New Delhi was retaliating for China’s policy of issuing stapled visas to travellers from Jammu & Kashmir. Three years later, there is still not enough clarity about the Chinese position on Kashmir and the Depsang incident has further muddied the waters. When they meet, the two SRs need to take stock of what has happened and ensure that neither side does anything to hurt or undermine the other’s core interests. This is the only way the relationship will grow.