Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang’s visit to India is significant for three unique and outstanding reasons. First, it takes place soon after the recent 20-day faceoff in the western sections of the disputed border between the two sides. The fact that the visit is on shows that the top leaders of both countries are determined not to allow any dispute or difference to come in the way of their attempts to build a strategic partnership. It also demonstrates that Sino-Indian ties are of strategic and global significance and go far beyond a bilateral relationship.
Given the lack of mutual acceptance or unified recognition of each other’s Line of Actual Control, there are scores of overlapping and grey areas with the potential for such faceoffs. It is also reasonable to assume, given the ground situation, that this kind of “incursion” must be occurring on both sides. The only difference could be that the Chinese media does not have easy access to reporting such “incursions” by the Indian forces, whereas the Indian media is very vocal on the issue. But till the lac is finally identified and is mutually accepted by both parties, such instances will remain all too frequent.
In the interim, however, there are several existing mechanisms which can help the two countries establish ‘guiding principles’ to settle border disputes. The manner in which they were used recently are a measure of the maturity the Sino-Indian ties have achieved.
Second, if it’s any encouragement, only once before have the heads of the Indian and Chinese governments visited each other’s country in the same year. (Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit China later this year.) This was in 1954 when Chinese premier Zhou Enlai came to India in June and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru returned the visit in October. Yet again, in the context of changing power equations in the global and regional arena, there is a strong demand from both sides to further upgrade the top-level interaction between the two countries.
The simultaneous rise of India and China, the global financial crisis and the economic recession as well as America’s ‘Asia-Rebalance’ strategy have infused a new dynamic into the Asia-Pacific region—where both China and India are located—and engendered uncertainty not only in the economic but also in the security domain.
It’s a scenario in which India and China can work jointly and constructively towards a much brighter future rather than wait for others to create a favourable external environment. In fact, the faster their rise, the greater the strategic squeeze and restrictions they are likely to face from the neighbourhood and developed economies. Both countries have the resources and the capacity to build a more inclusive, open, balanced and diversified framework in the Asia-Pacific region, both in terms of security and development, ensuring a win-win situation for both.
Leaders of China and India have often reiterated that there is enough space for the development of their countries. Both have had a long and rich civilisation to derive wisdom and philosophy from. The two nations also have a number of areas they can collaborate in. But without strategic cooperation, such development and space could become restricted and congested. It could also lead to the competition becoming more vicious, and the more vicious it becomes, the less room there will be to develop. A collaborative approach, on the other hand, will help both countries grow.
Moreover, only by expanding their areas of cooperation and cultivating more common ground can the two countries reduce their differences—if not in absolute terms, then in relative terms. It could provide the constructive atmosphere in which both countries can step out of their straitjacketed thinking and come up with fresh solutions to disputes.
Third, his trip to India will be Premier Li’s maiden foreign visit after he became prime minister in March. Given that President Xi Jinping’s first visit was to Russia—another big neighbour—it’s clear that the new leadership in China is giving neighbourhood diplomacy top priority. Or at least that it regards relations with the neighbours to be as important as those with the US, for China’s peaceful development, especially as it faces troubled waters in the West Pacific region. Building a cooperative and harmonious neighbourhood is a must for China to be accepted as a benign rising global power. The Chinese dream cannot materialise if both the country and its neighbours spend sleepless nights. In fact, China needs to take initiative to promote relations not just between China and its neighbours but among the neighbours themselves. It can only bode well for Sino-Indian ties.
(The author is director, South Asia and Southeast Asian Studies, Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations, Beijing.)