A Meeting of Two Asian Giants

China’s new prime minister recently made his first official visit to India.

China’s new prime minister, Li Keqiang, recently made his first official visit to India. The trip took place only a month after the two Asian giants had a tense standoff over their unresolved border dispute. The symbolism of choosing India as the first destination for an official visit by the new Chinese leader, despite the turbulence on other issues, was duly noted by the media in both countries.

In mid April, Delhi was taken aback by an incursion of Chinese PLA border troops into what was perceived as Indian territory in the western sector of the 2,500-mile border. The Chinese troops, in an unusual departure from a two-decade-old practice, unstated but de-facto, erected tents twelve miles into the Indian side. At the time, it seemed as if the bilateral relationship was steadily deteriorating, and some quarters in India speculated that this was a replay of the border war of October 1962.

But to the credit of both sides’ political leadership, the tension was dissipated when the Chinese troops pulled back. That ensured that there was no hiccup to mar Li’s visit. India remains baffled by this unexpected Chinese military assertiveness. In an intriguing move, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid visited Beijing on the eve of the Li visit to Delhi, but did not raise the intrusion incident in any visible manner. Both sides photoshopped the incident, and a brittle standoff over disputed territoriality with no easy solution in sight was prudently avoided.

Did India prevail upon Beijing to withdraw, or did it appease the new Chinese leadership? The answer isn’t publicly known.

While the Li visit did not lead to any major breakthrough (and none was expected) the joint statement issued by the two countries on May 20 is cause for cautious optimism. The opening section recalled the commitment made by both sides to peace and amity (based on the Buddhist concept of “panchashila,” the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence) and expanded their vision to dwell on the global relevance of a stable bilateral relationship.

In a grand sweep, it noted that

India and China have a historic opportunity for economic and social development and the realization of this goal will advance peace and prosperity in Asia and the world at large. The two sides welcome each other's peaceful development and regard it as a mutually reinforcing process. There is enough space in the world for the development of India and China, and the world needs the common development of both countries. As the two largest developing countries in the world, the relationship between India and China transcends bilateral scope and has acquired regional, global and strategic significance. Both countries view each other as partners for mutual benefit and not as rivals or competitors.

Notwithstanding the post-1949 historical experience that animates the troubled India-China relationship, the vision and objectives outlined by Singh and Li are unexceptionable. Both Asian giants have the potential to contribute significantly to global peace and prosperity in the next century, but the devil is in the details.

The Sino-Indian border imbroglio of April points to the complex link between territoriality and sovereignty that characterizes the security orientation of major Asian states. China, India and Japan are a case in point. While the focus of the Li visit was on the economic and trade benefits that can accrue from a more robust bilateral relationship and a $100 billion figure seems possible in the next two years, the asymmetry remains in China’s favor.

While two-way trade is close to $70 billion, the trade balance is skewed heavily in Beijing’s favor, with India having a $30 billion deficit. While China exports relatively high-value manufactured goods in the main, India is still exporting primarily mineral resources. Indian strengths in sectors such as pharmaceuticals and information technology are still not encouraged by China. But these areas are mentioned in the opening sections of the joint statement and reiterate the determination of the political leadership to pursue the areas of cooperation where there is no discord—such as trade and commerce.

In this visit the new Chinese leadership has sought to assuage Indian concerns that Beijing seeks to fetter India within the south Asia framework. Paragraph 32 noted that “China attaches great importance to India's status in international affairs as a large developing country, understands and supports India's aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations including in the Security Council.”

While this is welcome as an endorsement, the permanent membership of the UNSC is unlikely to be expanded anytime soon and thus Beijing’s assurance is more symbolic than substantive.

Asymmetry in China’s favor remains the abiding feature of the India-China relationship, and this is palpable also in the security and strategic domain. The complex territorial and border dispute finds mention only in paragraph 24, and there is no explicit mention of the April incident, which appears to have been diplomatically erased. The political leaders expressed “satisfaction” over the work done on the “Boundary Question” and noted sagely: “Pending the resolution of the boundary question, the two sides shall work together to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas in line with the previous agreements.”