PMs of China, India discuss Ladakh incursion; peace integral to ties

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh engaged in some plain speaking on the border, Brahmaputra and bilateral trade during his first meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Sunday evening. After the tense border stand-off for three weeks, Indians found Li to be surprisingly engaging and easy to like.

While the Indian and Chinese delegations will meet on Monday morning, the more sensitive issues were discussed between the two leaders inSunday’s meeting which went on for over an hour, way beyond schedule.

India stressed on maintenance of peace on the border. Singh told the Chinese leader, “If peace is disturbed, it impacts all other areas of the relationship.” Although he did not go into the details of the Depsang incident, it was a clear indication that it would not be business as usual if another such incident happened.

India may not endorse “one China” in the joint statement that will be issued after Li’s visit. This may be the most visible sign of India’s displeasure at the recent events in Depsang.

The PM also pushed the trans-border rivers issue, asking Li that the Chinese system should share more than hydrological data. India is keen to get a peek into the Chinese mind about their plans for damming the Brahmaputra. “Trans-border rivers should unite, not divide us,” he told Li. India and China will renew an agreement to exchange hydrological data on the Brahmaputra on Monday. China is reportedly working on seven more dams which may appear to be run-of-the-river, but India wants greater transparency.

A third issue in the discussions was the importance of making bilateral trade more of a two-way street. Singh said India would welcome Chinese investment, but only if there was reciprocity from the Chinese side. Li responded by saying he had brought a large business delegation for that purpose.

On his part, Li raised the Tibet issue, making Chinese displeasure clear on Dalai Lama’s presence in India. The PM pushed back, saying India’s policy had remained unchanged, Dalai Lama was a respected spiritual leader and was not allowed to engage in political activity in India.

At a dinner of Indian delicacies later, Li was introduced to the entire political spectrum — from Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to BJP leaders Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj to Mulayam Singh Yadav and Prakash Karat, as well as key ministers like Salman Khurshid and Manish Tewari.

On Monday, India and China will sign a number of agreements, on Kailash-Mansarovar, micro-irrigation, urban waste water management and on starting bovine meat exports to China (India is the world’s largest).

India’s messages to Li cover well-known areas, first, that China has to respect red lines on territory. The Ladakh incident has been a rude jolt to the Indian system, particularly the part that believes in taking a softer approach to the Chinese in view of either their growing power or leadership changes or taking a tolerant view of their aggressiveness on their borders.

While India and China are supposed to be negotiating a border defence pact, officials are concerned that such pacts — there have been three — haven’t prevented incursions. China has refused to clarify the LAC, even though both sides have exchanged maps of the middle sector and shown each other maps on the western sector. Post-Depsang, the clarification of the LAC will assume greater importance and this will be pushed by the Indian side.

Li arrived in New Delhi in the afternoon, 27 years after his first visit, and was met by minister of state for external affairs E Ahamed and foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai. Mathai played a crucial role during the recent Ladakh crisis, along with MEA stalwarts Gautam Bambawale and Indian ambassador to China S Jaishankar.

India is likely to tell the Chinese that its “core” interests are non-negotiable and that China has to respect them if Beijing expects India to respect its core interests in Tibet and Taiwan.

India had first removed the reaffirmation of the ‘one China’ policy in a joint statement with former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in December 2010 as a sign of disapproval. That was the year the Chinese were caught issuing stapled visas to people from Jammu and Kashmir, taking it to the extreme of issuing such a visa to the Army’s northern area commander. That led to India putting a stop to defence ties with China for a while.

This time, the government floundered hopelessly on the Depsang incursion partly because a section of the government was reluctant to put a spanner in the works for the Chinese premier’s India visit. But after sustained political and popular opposition to China’s actions on the LAC, the government found itself forced to contemplate a cancellation of Salman Khurshid’s China visit and Li’s India trip.

But while Indians flapped around during those 21 days, China showed a terrible miscalculation about India — a growing constituency of opinion in the upper echelons of government was much more China-leaning in recent months. This group has suffered the biggest setback as the Depsang issue called for steel in the spine.

On the second leg of his journey to Mumbai, officials said Li will attend a meeting with business leaders and visit a Tata Consultancy Services facility. He will also meet family members of late Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis, an Indian physician who went to China to provide medical assistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938.

Li opts for vegetarian meal, says he’s fascinated by Taj

Li surprised the Indians at the dinner by opting for a vegetarian meal, even as the conversation focused on the positives of the bilateral relationship. Indian guests reported that they had come prepared to meet a starchy Chinese leader but found Li to be eminently likeable, open and engaging.

The conversation swirled around Li’s last India visit in 1986, when he said he had been impressed by both Taj Mahal and Indian universities. Dinner talk focused on the state of the global economy and the sorry state of the WTO, and what India and China could do together to get global trade talks restarted. While the larger relationship may or may not prosper, the Indian leadership appears to have found someone in China they feel they can talk to.