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CHINESE PREMIER LI KEQIANG’S FORTHCOMING VISIT TO INDIA – HOLD YOUR BETS

From acute rancour for three weeks since a Chinese army battalion pitched tents at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) on April 15, it is now spring in the relations between India and China. Premier Li remembers the warmth of the Indian people when he led a Chinese youth delegation to India in 1986. This came after Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid expressed his desire to live in China, and found his walk around Beijing’s Tien An Men Square so peaceful. Where was Mr. Khurshid on July 04, 1989?

Premier Li Keqiang will arrive in New Delhi on May 19. Following official talks he will address a group of Indians mainly ex-Indian Foreign Service officers and other selected invitees on May 21, organized by the Indian Council of World Affair (ICWA), a think tank of the Indian Foreign Ministry. This would have given the Premier an opportunity to interact with Indians and give greater clarity of China’s foreign policy and India policy. Alas, that is not to be. Premier Li will not take any questions.

The April 15 DBO incident could have blown into a bigger problem. The Indian government was not willing to budge with the army fully in the loop. It was not 1962 any longer, and the Chinese side may have understood it finally. Much as the Chinese official media may blame the Indian media and some opposition politicians to blow up the incident, the fact is that the Indian people have taken too much pressure and insults from the Chinese, their patience shave been tested to the limits.

The Indian side is emphatic that the Chinese army tents were located inside the Indian perceived Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Western Sector of the India-China undemarcated border, and both sides are fully aware where their respective LAC lies.

How exactly the situation was diffused is not yet available to the public. In this writer’s understanding interlocutors of both sides agreed to put a thick blanket on the incident for immediate reasons of bilateral and regional exigencies, but the problem is hibernating.

Following indicators may help. On March 19, Chinese President Xi Jinping told an Indian in Beijing that the border issue was an historical issue, and resolving would not be easy. Later, after meeting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in South Africa, President Xi told the Xinhua (March 27) that he was keen on a faster pace of work between the two sides to resolve the border issue. This quick reversal inside of ten days is not a Chinese characteristic. Of course, when the Chinese are determined to resolve boundary issue, they move quickly.

Then came another reversal when the Chinese army decided to set up tents at DBO. The Chinese official media maintained silence on the border issue after March 27 to May 10, when the relationship thawed. It may also be noted that the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson gave cryptic answers to questions on the issue. The main point they made was that the Chinese troops remained inside Chinese territory at DBO. This position did not change even after troops on both sides disengaged. From the Chinese point of view, the particular point at which the Chinese troops pitched their tents is Chinese territory and they will be cited when the negotiations come down to identifying the LAC.

The Xinhua which is acknowledged as the Chinese government’s is authentic mouthpiece, came out with an article on diplomacy of the new Chinese leadership. It mentioned President Xi’s first official tour of Russia and three African countries, and Premier Li’s forthcoming maiden foreign trip to India, Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany as demonstration of China’s desire towards shared destiny and common development, and giving priority to close neighbours, enhance relations with underdeveloped and developing countries, and work with the developed countries with a more amiable Europe.

A close look at the article would reveal the emphasis was mainly on developing relations with India and lock India into a commitment where India at least remains neutral in China’s policies with Japan, Vietnam and other South East Asian countries with which it has territorial disputes. They would expect India not to take a position countering sovereignty claim over the entire South China Sea based on nine dashed-lines, the origin of which is unclear except China’s military muscle. This policy comes out clear even in the very recent so-called “sweet” Chinese articles on relations with India. Incidentally, the Xinhua article devoted only one clear sentence to Pakistan as “all-weather” friends and “unusual friends”. This is misleading. The same article quoted acclaimed Chinese military strategy at the National Defence University of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) saying “Rain or Shine, China-Pakistan relations stand weather proof”. The PLA and the Pakistani army are close partners focussed on countering India, and this is not going to change easily.

Li Keqiang visit to Pakistan from India treads the old path. Islamabad will not be let down, and military including strategic military assistance to Pakistan will continue.

China has huge interest in Pakistan starting from facilitating, China-US diplomatic relations, links to the Middle East, Port facilities and land route the Arabian Sea and the Gulf, and a potential naval base.

Yet, China has concerns with Pakistan. Growing influence Islamic terrorists in Pakistan has affected China. The Afghan issue is taking a new form, and affects Chinese interests. Pakistan’s congenital anti-Indianism was a boon for China for a long time. This is changing. Economically, Pakistan is a basket case, and serious provocation of India could jeopardise China’s grow strategy in this region. As an increasingly global player China will have to shoulder responsibilities which it has been avoiding till now.

Sections of the Chinese official media continue to project India’s growing military and technological relations with the US, relations with Japan, Vietnam and such other as strategy to encircle China. Surely, Premier Li will be briefed on these recent commentaries as he takes off from India.

Certainly, the zero-sum game is of the past. A win-win situation is not practical either. Every country has its own strategic interests which cannot be compromised. With this aura of friendship crated, Premier Li would do well to clarify China’s position on India’s strategic interest including India’s quest for membership in the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) among many other issues. To start with, the Chinese political leadership must get the PLA on board on relations with India. Otherwise, it will be a non-starter.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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