Chinese premier heads to India to boost ties

NEW DELHI: Just weeks after a tense border standoff, China’s new premier headed to India on Sunday for his first foreign trip as the neighboring giants look to speed up efforts to settle a decades-old boundary dispute and boost economic ties.

China says Premier Li Keqiang’s choice of India for his first trip abroad since taking office in March shows the importance Beijing attaches to improving relations with New Delhi.

“We think very highly of this gesture because it is our view that high-level political exchanges between our two countries are an important aspect and vehicle for our expanded cooperation,” said India’s external affairs ministry spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin.

Jasjit Singh, a defense analyst and director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in New Delhi, said last month’s border standoff was unlikely to overshadow Li’s three-day visit to India, which kicks off a foreign tour that will also see Li visiting Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany.

Singh said Indian and Chinese leaders were likely to review border talks that have failed to produce a breakthrough in the past 10 years despite 15 rounds of discussions. The two sides also will probably discuss working together in Afghanistan after next year’s U.S. pullout and cooperating with Southeast Asian countries, he said.

But tensions run high between the two nations. China already sees itself as Asia’s great power, while India hopes its increasing economic and military might — though still far below its neighbor’s — will eventually put it in the same league.

While China has worked to shore up relationships with Nepal and Sri Lanka in India’s traditional South Asian sphere of influence, India has been venturing into partnerships with Southeast Asian nations.

Other irritants remain in the bilateral relationship. China is a longtime ally and weapons supplier to Pakistan, India’s bitter rival. Also, the presence in India of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile is a source of tension. China accuses the Dalai Lama of wanting to split Tibet off from the rest of China, but he says he seeks real autonomy for Tibetans, not independence.

Unresolved border issues between the two nations have flared as well.

In last month’s incident, India claimed that Chinese troops crossed the countries’ de facto border April 15 and pitched camp in the Depsang valley in the Ladakh region of eastern Kashmir. New Delhi responded with diplomatic protests, then moved its soldiers just 300 meters (yards) from the Chinese position.

The two sides negotiated a peaceful end to the standoff by withdrawing troops to their original positions in the Ladakh area.

Gautam Bambawale, a senior Indian external affairs ministry official, said India and China were negotiating a Border Defense Cooperation Agreement, but declined to give details. Indian media reports said the agreement proposes a freezing of troop levels of the two countries in the disputed border region as they make efforts to settle the issue.

Bambawale also said Indian and Chinese officials recently held talks in Beijing on the future of Afghanistan. China, India and Russia have trilaterally discussed the matter with the idea of giving full support to Afghanistan’s government as it makes the transition following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2014.

Shortly after his arrival in the Indian capital of New Delhi late Sunday afternoon, Li is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who will host a dinner for him. Delegation-level talks between the two sides are scheduled for Monday. Li will attend a business summit in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, among other activities.

The border spat last month saw the Indian opposition and the media put pressure on the government to take on China and call off Li’s visit. The government, however, chose to go ahead with the trip, highlighting its policy of trying to widen areas of cooperation with China while attempting to resolve key differences.

China has become India’s biggest trading partner, with two-way trade jumping from $5 billion in 2002 to nearly $75 billion in 2011, although that figure declined to $61.5 billion last year because of the global economic downturn. Trade remains heavily skewed in China’s favor, another source of concern for India.

“After Depsang, the loudest voices have warned of evils to come,” K.S. Bajpai, a retired diplomat, wrote in an article in the Indian Express daily. “Whether commonalities on global issues like the WTO (World Trade Organization), or climate change, or even greater economic ties, can bind us in amity, or at least prevent the worst, remain debatable, but the attempt would certainly serve our interests, provided we also gear ourselves up.”

Asian giants with more than 1 billion people each, India and China have had chilly relations since they fought a brief but bloody border war in 1962.

India says China is occupying 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) of territory in the Aksai Chin plateau in the western Himalayas, while China claims around 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. Fifteen rounds of talks have failed to resolve the dispute.

Li will leave India on Wednesday morning and head to close Chinese ally Pakistan before traveling to Switzerland and Germany on visits tightly focused on economic ties.