China’s new leaders have, as yet, given little indication of how they plan to take ties with India forward

President Xi Jinping is expected to hold his first meeting as China’s new leader with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this week, along the sidelines of the March 26 BRICS Summit in South Africa. The talks — they are expected to be a brief event according to officials in Beijing, who cited the limitations of Mr. Xi’s “tight schedule” — will mark India’s first major engagement with the new Chinese leadership, which took over following the conclusion of the National People’s Congress, or Parliament, on March 17.

China’s new leaders have, as yet, given little indication of how they plan to take ties with India forward. Mr. Xi, in his first interview after taking over as President, outlined a “five-point proposal” to improve relations with India, when he met with a group of journalists from the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Beijing on March 19.

Mr. Xi’s proposal had little in the way of specifics, and did not offer new ideas. The five proposals called for: maintaining strategic communication and keeping ties on the right track; expanding cooperation in infrastructure and mutual investment; strengthening cultural ties; increasing coordination on multilateral affairs; and “accommodating each other’s core concerns” to “properly handle differences.”

If anything can be gleaned from Mr. Xi’s remarks, it is that the new leadership is yet to devote its full attention to ties with India. The “five points” Mr. Xi listed were, in fact, almost entirely similar to the five-pronged proposal made by his predecessor, Hu Jintao, during a visit to India one year ago, for the BRICS Summit in New Delhi. Since taking over as the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) General Secretary in November last year, it is clear that Mr. Xi, and the top leadership, have been preoccupied with the transition at home. On the foreign policy front as well, India does not figure high on the list of Beijing’s current priorities.

Continuity

China’s present focus is largely on the United States – particularly, its “pivot” or rebalancing towards Asia — and Japan, following recent tensions over the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. Analysts in Beijing see the annual press conference given by the Chinese Foreign Minister as a somewhat inexact indicator of China’s current foreign policy priorities. The briefing given by outgoing Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing on March 9, a carefully choreographed affair in which the questions were arranged weeks in advance, focused primarily on China’s relations with the U.S., Japan and Russia, the destination of Mr. Xi’s first overseas State visit. Other areas that found specific mention were the tensions on the Korean peninsula, ties with Africa, the Syrian crisis and relations with Asean.

Chinese foreign policy analysts acknowledge that India may not be high on the list of China’s present diplomatic priorities. This, they suggest, is not entirely a bad thing, and is more a reflection of the increasingly stable nature of the relationship rather than a lack of interest. Chinese officials point out that only three years ago, ties were persistently tested with recurring differences over the boundary dispute and Tibet. In 2009, for instance, regular reports in India described aggressive patrolling and “incursions” by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in border areas, while in China, anger over exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang cast a shadow on ties. Four years on, both issues have appeared to have become less of an irritant, and relations are certainly more stable. As Hu Shisheng, a leading South Asia strategic analyst at the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations in Beijing puts it, “India-China relations are not [in a state of] disturbance,” even if they are secondary to other more pressing concerns.

As a key partner

The CPC’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, recently suggested there are two areas where China now sees its main interests with India. A recent editorial pointed to the border issue being “controlled effectively” and an increasing focus on trade and multilateral issues as heralding “a new chapter” in ties. The newspaper argued that a new focus on trade frictions was, in fact, a welcome sign that a relationship historically burdened by strategic mistrust was now becoming more “normal.”

For Chinese companies, India has certainly emerged as an increasingly important destination for investment and project contracts, particularly in the power and telecom sectors. According to the Indian Embassy in Beijing, Chinese companies are executing $55 billion worth of projects in India — more than in any other country. China also sees India as an important partner on multilateral issues like trade and climate change. Coming under increasing pressure from the West to take on more responsibility as the second largest economy and single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, China stands to gain by aligning itself with other developing countries. Mr. Xi suggested as much in his proposal: his third recommendation called on both countries to “jointly safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries.”

Core concerns

Mr. Xi, in his proposal, also called for both countries to “accommodate each other’s core concerns.” How both countries will do so remains to be seen: they have recently followed an approach that has sought to “manage” — if not simply ignore — outstanding differences on difficult core concerns, rather than seek to engage on those issues. For China, the Tibetan issue ranks highest in terms of its concerns. India’s crackdown on Tibetan protests in April last year during the visit of Hu Jintao to New Delhi eased Chinese anxieties, even as the heavy-handed approach by the police faced criticism from both rights groups in India and from the exiled Tibetan community.

China, for its part, has appeared less willing to deal with thorny issues such as transboundary rivers or its continuing projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). China’s recent approval for three new dams on the Brahmaputra were reported to have caught Indian officials by surprise, not finding mention in recent talks, even if the projects are run-of-the-river dams that might not significantly impact downstream flows. China has also appeared to continue with its investments and projects in PoK, maintaining that its involvement was without prejudice to India’s dispute with Pakistan. It has, however, sought to mollify India’s concerns on Kashmir by quietly withdrawing its issuing of “stapled visas.” Dr. Singh may not raise these contentious issues during his brief meeting with Mr. Xi, which is unlikely to see the leaders engage on specifics.

Next month’s expected visit of Defence Minister A.K. Antony to China will provide a platform to mark the real start of engagement with Beijing’s new leadership, and will shed some light on how a new chapter in ties will begin to confront old challenges.

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