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EXPLAINED: The real gains for India from Premier Li's visit

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: May 22, 2013 02:21 IST
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The real assessment of the actual diplomatic gains out of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s three-day India visit can be made only after promised actions are initiated, but surely it has yielded some political dividend for the beleaguered United Progressive Alliance government, notes Sheela Bhatt.

The issue of the incursion by Chinese troops 19 kilometres into Indian territory in mid-April created a huge national crisis for the UPA government. It reminded people of the days of 1999 when Pakistani troops violated the sanctity of the Line of Control in Kargil.

Considering the uproar that followed after the release of photographs of Chinese tents inside India, the visit of Premier Li Keqiang and his remarkably “warm, interactive, very natural” ways have brought “some respite” for the government and the Congress party.

When asked if the visit has helped the government, a senior Congress leader said, “Yes, a temporary respite has been managed.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in March in Durban where he opened up, unlike his predecessors, more than usual.

Now, Li’s enthusiasm and personal touch displayed in the last three days will make India reassess what is in store for it from the two new leaders in Beijing who are unveiling their vision of taking their country forward in quite a different style.

Li was candid enough to even tell the Indian audience, before leaving for Mumbai, that, “When China and India will speak in one voice the world must and will listen.” He took his argument further and said, “India and China have differences, but our shared interests outweigh them”.

While speaking on “the role of China and India in world affairs and in rebalancing global economic growth”, Premier Li said (obviously, without mentioning America), “A distant relative may not be as useful as a close neighbour”.

In view of the fact that India first underplayed the Chinese incursion in Depsang valley as a “local” incident -- a top strategic expert in the government had insisted that it has no “military element” in it  -- the dominance of the border issue during the Li’s visit spoke a different story.

A careful reading of Dr Singh’s media statement suggested new posturing. It’s clear that Indian diplomats have treaded carefully and taken care to address domestic sensitivities and its political fallout.

In fact the ministry’s “feeding” to media about Dr Singh and Li’s first one-on-one meeting on latter’s arrival Sunday highlighted that “ties hinge on a peaceful border.”

The following day bilateral talks took place and the message was communicated to media that “the PM sends tough signal on Ladakh incursion to Li”.

An hour after the delegation-level talks, during the media briefing, India’s ambassador to China Dr S Jaishakar was asked, “In the backdrop in which the Chinese premier has come here, was there any specific assurance on the border issue? Of and on there are assurances from the Chinese side but it does not work. What was new in this meeting?”

Dr Jaishankar responded, “First of all what was new was that it was a visit, it was coming after an incident which was very unusual. I think basically where the discussions headed was that we need to look into how this happened and what are the lessons to be learnt. That is where, as I pointed out, the understanding was that we would ask the Special Representatives (of India and China) to really lead that effort and they will look into the mechanisms, how they work, what were the shortcomings, how this happened. And if they have suggestions to make, I think both governments will look at them.”

If one analysed the Indian ambassador’s response it was clear that the sensitive issue has been shifted out of public domain and has been sent to the negotiating table of the Special Representatives where it belongs since 2003. 

The Congress party would have been jolted to its core if, along with the 2G scam and coal-gate episode, the Chinese incursion issue would have percolated down and dominated the public space for months.

Premier Li’s visit and the joint statement have pushed the issue cleverly and inevitably into the court of the Special Representatives, meaning the details of the talks will become out of reach of the media.

The joint statement said, “The leaders expressed satisfaction over the work done so far by Special Representatives of the two countries on the boundary question and encouraged them to push forward the process of negotiations and seek a framework for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement in accordance with the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles.”

The Indian side believes that at the end of the visit India has highlighted successfully the importance of "peace" on the Sino-Indian border.

“What was China’s response to the Depsang incursion by People’s Liberation Army that violated understanding at Sino-India border?” repeatedly asked a senior officer, who was part of the team that was behind the preparation of the high-level visit, in an off-the-record conversation. He replied, “The biggest take away for India is the line in PM Singh’s media statement where he said that the basis for continued growth and expansion of our ties is peace and tranquility on our borders”.

As such the officer decodes that sentence as -- India believes that “growth and expansion of ties” with China is possible only if “China and India maintain ‘peace and tranquility’ on the borders”.

However, the joint statement is not as straight and plain speaking as the PM’s media statement is. The statement says, “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 previous agreements.”

The Chinese leadership is now, more than before, pushing for a resolution of the border issue, thinks a distinguished expert on China while commenting on Li’s visit. The officer’s assessment matches the briefing giving to selective media on the eve of Li’s visit by a senior officer in the government. He clearly says, “The Chinese incursion was to give the political message.”

Another diplomat, while briefing after Premier Li’s visit, said, “India could hold candid talks on the border issue with China. We emphasised how peace and tranquility is important to India. The visit generated greater trust to take forward the relationship. India has managed better trade access in China due to Premier Li’s talks with PM Singh. Above all, do not underestimate gains for our northeast region. On issues related to trans-border rivers we have moved forward.”

Talking about trade access, one diplomat said, “You have no idea what it means for India’s buffalo meat and sea-food exporters. They can mint money”.

He pointed out that paragraph 26 of the joint statement says, “The Indian side expressed appreciation to China for providing flood-season hydrological data and the assistance in emergency management. The two sides will further strengthen cooperation on trans-border rivers. They agreed to cooperate through the expert-level mechanism on provision of flood-season hydrological data and emergency management, and exchange views on other issues of mutual interest.”

This is cited as a net benefit to India. The Indian side believes that if the expert-level mechanism starts functioning northeastern states will be better equipped with data.

Also, an equally important decision about road connectivity has been taken during Premier Li’s visit. In fact, if handled maturely and diplomatically, it will be a great economic boon for the entire eastern India.

National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon has been advocating the connectivity with countries in neighbourhood on the eastern border since long. The joint statement says, “The two sides appreciated the progress made in promoting cooperation under the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) Regional Forum. Encouraged by the successful BCIM car rally of February 2013 between Kolkata and Kunming (China), the two sides agreed to consult the other parties with a view to establishing a joint study group on strengthening connectivity in the BCIM region for closer economic, trade, and people-to-people linkages and to initiating the development of a BCIM economic corridor.”

On the ground this development can bring tremendous economic growth of north-east and east India. Already some roads are being built. As this proposal does not involve territorial issues there would be less resistance. It’s about building roads to facilitate import-exports.

Dr Singh has been getting elected from Assam since 1991. It will be a kind of thank you from him to Assam if the BCIM forum’s agenda fructifies. In his media statement he has reiterated that India and China has discussed the possibility of infrastructure development to link India’s northeastern region with Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and other countries in the Southeast Asian region.

The source in the ministry claims, “In fact, while preparing the joint statement along with Chinese side and especially in finalising the media statement a political approach was taken by the Indian side, We took care of the border issue, concerns about trans-border rivers and trade deficit”.

“The Chinese side was looking towards emphasising importance of resolution of the border issue, creating goodwill after the incursion and they wanted to preserve the relations at a strategic level to help grow economic relationship faster,” he says.

The Indian side claims care was taken to consider people’s issues while drafting the joint statement.

India and China have agreed to cooperate on establishing industrial zones so as to provide platforms for cluster-type development of enterprises of the two countries. This is an employment-oriented measure. Also, the issue of visas has been mentioned.

As 2014 has been designated as the "Year of Friendly Exchanges" visa availability is vital. The joint statement mentions that, “In view of the expanding trade and commerce and growing people-to-people contacts, it was agreed to work towards simplifying visa procedures.”

India has also agreed to satisfy China’s demand for more trade through the Nathu La Pass. Hindu pilgrims also have something in the joint statement: “Chinese side shall provide greater facilitation to Indian pilgrims for the Gang Renpoche and Mapam Yun Tso Pilgrimage (Kailash Manasarovar Yatra). The Indian side conveyed appreciation to the Chinese side for the improvement of facilities for the Indian pilgrims”.

On a lighter note, a senior diplomat commented, “Dhandha (business) and dhamki (threat) are working side by side between India and China”.

Image: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang waves as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh watches after Li's ceremonial reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Monday

Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
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