The recently installed Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang paid a three day visit to India which concluded today. It was significant that Li chose India for his first foreign visit. He was to visit Pakistan immediately after his visit while his Indian counterpart is embarking on a visit to Japan.There seems to be some sort of diplomatic equivalence-intended or unintended- in both Prime Ministers wending their way to the capitals of countries with which India and China have difficult relations! Be that as it may, while increasing trade was a major issue on the agenda, the Indians must have wanted to hear from Li about the border fracas between the two countries which began on April 15.According to Indian sources, around 50 Chinese soldiers intruded into what the Indians claim is Indian territory in the Ladakh area of Kashmir. It must be remembered that India and China went to war in 1962 over their disputed border. India came off second best in that encounter and this almost certainly weighs more heavily with India than with China. Since then, despite periodic efforts Beijing and New Delhi are nowhere near a solution to this issue. It is not known if Li was able to provide his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh with a plausible explanation of the border standoff, which ended when the Chinese withdrew from the position they had assumed on April 15.According to Gardiner Harris writing in the New York Times, Li, talking to Indian business leaders in Mumbai said,”we have not shied away from this question, but have agreed to push forward in resolving this question”. This looks like an anodyne statement of the sort politicians and diplomats make when they do not wish to be more revelatory.
More important was Harris’ observation that “China’s growing economic and military power and its increasing willingness to use these levers on the world stage have unnerved India’s leaders”. If this is an accurate assessment then attempts attributed to the US to build India as a counterweight to China will not be successful. The disparity between the two is too wide for India to meaningfully deter China from being the preponderant power in Asia. Other countries in the region and beyond will have to adjust to what the Russians in their Soviet days used to refer to as “the correlation of forces”.
I believe it is a good idea for both India and China not to be distracted unduly by their border differences. India appears to lay more emphasis on this aspect than China. This is understandable. In a somewhat analogous example, Pakistan lays much more emphasis on its dispute over Kashmir with India than India does. Both India and China will gain by concentrating on augmenting their trade relationship. The trade element in any bilateral relationship acts as a powerful incentive for both countries to settle their political differences or at least not exacerbate them to the point of armed hostilities. In 2012 India’s exports to China reached $18.8 billion making the latter its largest trading partner; while Chinese exports to India were $47.75 billion. India would naturally like to reduce this imbalance in their trade. There is scope for India to do this to some extent given the fact that both India and China, with populations upward of a billion in each country, constitute two of the largest domestic markets in the world.