China turns friendly with India - but why?

When China's former premier, Wen Jiabao, visited India in December 2010, he was full of talk about the two countries' joint aspirations, their friendship, their co-operation, and about how their two-way trade would almost double to US$100 billion a year by 2015.

In a speech in Delhi, Wen said their civilizations had "once added radiance and beauty to each other and deeply influenced the process of human civilization," - and then suddenly his tone and even his demeanor changed, and he put India firmly in its place as an unequal neighbor, taking China's usual rigid line on the two countries' decades-long dispute over its mountainous 3,500 km border. "It will not be easy to completely resolve this question. It requires patience and will take a fairly long period of time," he declared.

China's new premier, Li Keqiang, has been in India since Sunday, perhaps significantly visiting Delhi and Mumbai at the beginning of his first trip abroad since taking up his new post in March. Unlike his predecessor, he has been consistent in his friendly and practical remarks about sowing "the seeds of friendship", and saying that China was "committed to building friendly relations with India". There was no sudden Wen Jaibao-style change of tack, which sounded in 2010 as if China's powerful People's Liberation Army (PLA) had drafted part of his speech.

In a joint media conference with Manmohan Singh yesterday, and at a businessmen's meeting this morning, Li's body language has been strikingly fulsome and consistent.

He talked in practical terms about how the two prime ministers had had "multiple in-depth and candid discussions" and that a "strategic consensus" had "deepened our strategic trust". He repeated China's usual line that the border issue was "a question left over by history", but added that the two sides had "agreed to push forward with negotiations", which contrasted sharply with the line taken by Wen Jaibao and most Chinese leaders in recent years.

That change of mood is the most notable point to emerge from the visit, especially coming at the start of China's new leadership's 10-year term in office. Li's smiling. sophisticated friendliness, however, contrasted sharply with a small but major confrontation triggered by China on the mountainous border between the two countries a month ago, which prompts questions about China's motives.

Does it really want to solve disagreements over the 2,000-plus mile disputed border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which has been undefined since India humiliatingly lost a war there in 1962? It has been resisting moves to clarify the border in recent years, despite past agreements that it should do so, and India, which habitually shrinks from diplomatic confrontation, has not pushed hard enough.

Or - and this seems more likely - does China have other targets? It probably wants to coax India into a border defense co-operation agreement, which is now being negotiated. This could stop India's current construction of infrastructure and defensive installations to match China's presence on the other side of the border.

India ignored China's construction work for years, and has only recently woken up to the need for roads and a substantial military presence, so it would be self-defeating for it to sign an agreement at this stage, especially before the border line is defined.

Teasing America

China is also probably teasing the US, which has been cozying up to India since 2005. Li today quoted a Chinese proverb that "a distant relative may not be as useful as a near neighbor," clearly trying (no doubt fruitlessly) to wean India away from the US. The Beijing-based People's Daily, a government mouthpiece, said this morning that the US "should not be jealous" of a strategic partnership between China and India because the two countries did not want to be America's "enemy" - they just hoped for its co-operation.

China could also have decided that it sent the wrong signals with the recent border row, and that it should not fall out with its biggest neighbor at the same time as it is aggressively confronting Japan and the Philippines over possession of islands in the East and South China Seas.

Li's approach is especially confusing because it comes soon after 30 PLA troops pitched tents, in mid-April, 19 km inside what India regards as its territory on the 16,000ft-high Depsang Plain in the Ladakh sector of the LAC. A procedure agreed in 2005 for solving such a confrontation was not operated by China so, after some apparently nervous indecision and delay, India moved troops and tents into a face-off and strengthened its previously soft diplomatic stance. After three weeks, both sides removed their troops, but the terms of the truce were not revealed.

This confrontation was totally unexpected in Delhi and was especially odd coming so soon after China's new president, Xi Jinping, had (on March 19) put forward five proposals for improving ties with India and said that "peace and tranquility" should be maintained on the border in order to help solve the border issue, a task that "won't be easy".

Dodging issues

Manmohan Singh is reported to have warned Li on Sunday evening that peace on the border was essential for relations to grow. He said at the media conference that he and Li had taken "stock of lessons learnt from the recent incident" - tactfully dubbing what had been a major incursion as merely an "incident". Li apparently dodged the question when he was asked why and how the incursion had happened and, instead of pressing this, India agreed that two top "special representatives" should "consider further measures that may be needed to maintain peace and tranquility along the border, and seek "early agreement on a framework for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable" boundary settlement.

"Why embarrass him!", Salman Khurshid, India's foreign minister, said later. It was better to find out why the existing procedure had not worked.

A long joint statement was issued with over 30 items ranging from the border and economic co-operation to media exchanges, easier visas and handling Afghanistan and, notably, recognition by China of India's wish for a bigger role in the United Nations‘ Security Council.

What this all means will begin to emerge when the special representatives meet in a few weeks' time. Barring mishaps, India's defense minister will then visit Beijing, followed later in the year by Manmohan Singh, whose declining reputation as prime minister has been boosted by Li's visit and the possibility of improved relations.

To show it wants progress, China needs to hand over draft maps of its border proposals which it has resisted doing so far - presumably because, the longer the border is undefined, the easier it is for it to grab patches of territory. It also needs to soften the stridency of a claim to the whole of India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which India will never voluntarily concede. For its part, India needs to find the courage to push for progress.

In summary, Li Keqiang's visit has generated splendid bonhomie and talk of good intentions - India helped by blocking roads and surrounding the Chinese Embassy with heavy barbed wire defenses to stop Tibetan protestors upsetting the mood. Issues of substance on problems over the border, and over China possibly blocking India's river waters with new up-stream dams, have however been dodged by talking about mechanisms rather than substance. That fits with India's traditionally low key approach to foreign diplomacy, which plays into China's hands. It now remains to be seen whether India will push for real movement, not just mechanisms, and whether China is willing to respond.

(John Elliott writes an India current affairs blog "Riding the Elephant" from Delhi.)