Boundary tensions challenge Li Keqiang’s visit

Updated - November 16, 2021 08:28 pm IST

Published - May 10, 2013 12:28 pm IST - BEIJING

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid meets Chinese Premier Li Keqiangat the Purple Hall of the central leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, in Beijingon Friday. Photo: Ananth Krishnan

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid meets Chinese Premier Li Keqiangat the Purple Hall of the central leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, in Beijingon Friday. Photo: Ananth Krishnan

With Chinese Premier Li Keqiang telling Indian officials on Friday that his decision to make India the destination of his first overseas visit was “carefully thought out,” both countries, officials say, are facing an increasingly difficult challenge to ensure that the visit, in nine days’ time, will meet expectations amid lingering boundary tensions.

While External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid wrapped up a two-day visit here on Friday evening, Indian officials will stay on in Beijing for an additional day of talks with Chinese officials in charge of boundary affairs and with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to resolve outstanding issues.

The Chinese side has put forward 16 proposals which, they hope, will be approved before Mr. Li arrives in India on May 19. China is particularly keen on India agreeing to a border defence cooperation agreement, a draft of which was sent to New Delhi on May 4. India has put forward its own “wish list” of agreements, officials said.

Some takeaway

The defence proposal was “a broad agreement, so it will take some time to go over every aspect of it,” said Mr. Khurshid, who on Friday met with Mr. Li and the top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, who will take over as the Special Representative on the boundary talks.

At both meetings, Mr. Khurshid said, he had “requested that each one of us would have some takeaway” on how they resolved the recent three-week-long standoff in Ladakh and how “we can work further to ensure such an incident does not happen again.”

To that end, Indian and Chinese officials who comprise the consultation and coordination mechanism on border affairs met here in the evening. Joint Secretary (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs Gautam Bambawale and Brigadier Y.K. Joshi, a senior military officer in charge of China-related and border issues, will stay on in Beijing on Saturday for talks with the Chinese.

Both India and China have played down the recent border tensions which have complicated on-going consultations in the lead-up to Mr. Li’s visit. Mr. Khurshid on Friday maintained that both countries were in agreement that the stand-off in Ladakh had been handled satisfactorily through existing mechanisms. He did not press the Chinese on what prompted the April 15 incursion, saying that “apportioning blame” would not help.

“I didn’t have a moment’s doubt that we would not be able to resolve it,” he said. “Some may have thought it was misplaced optimism [but] it did get resolved.”

He rejected media reports which said India had made a concession to end the stand-off, saying that the Chinese withdrawal to the position that obtained prior to April 15, indicated they had accepted India’s position — not the other way round.

Mr. Khurshid acknowledged that whether or not Mr. Li’s visit would fulfil expectations depended “on the number of agreements we sign and the content of those agreements.”

“Right until the last moment, these things will be negotiated,” he said. “Many are in the starting position, meaning they are quite happy if we say, yes this is something we can look at. Two, [agreements] that we can say in principle seem okay but can only be done by the time our Prime Minister arrives here [later in the year], and three, what is a little bit visionary and would require a lot of work but that we should put in the joint statement [issued during Mr. Li's visit].”

‘Good signal’

Mr. Li said in talks on Friday that he decided to make India the first stop of his first overseas trip “after careful thought,” Mr. Khurshid noted. “This means this is not a casual decision, [it is] a carefully, thoughtfully, taken decision. That gives a very good signal,” he said. “He used the word natural, [saying] that as natural partners you obviously think of each other first before you think of anyone else.”

In opening remarks, Mr. Li said “there will be no prosperity in Asia without the simultaneous development of China and India”. He said China “would like to negotiate with India to settle border issues and create favourable conditions for bilateral cooperation and development,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.

On Friday, the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper published a front-page commentary, in its overseas edition, saying both countries had embarked on “a new type” of relations” marked by a decision to “separate the boundary issue from the overall China-India relations and ensure the relevant differences not to affect the development of the bilateral ties.”

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