Posted by: John Elliott | May 21, 2013

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 country’s joint aspirations, their friendship, their co-operation, and about how their two-way trade would almost double to $100bn a year by 2015. In a speech in Delhi, he 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 demeanour changed, and he put India firmly in its place as an unequal neighbour, taking China’s usual rigid line on the two countries’ decades-long dispute over its mountainous 3,500 kms (2,170 mile) 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 the China’s new leadership’s ten-year term in office. Li’s smiling sophisticated friendliness however contrasted sharply with a small but major confrontation triggered by China on the countries’ mountainous border a month ago, which prompts questions about China’s motives.

Does it really want to solve disagreements over the countries’ 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 defence 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 cosying up to India since 2005. Li today quoted a Chinese proverb that “a distant relative may not be as useful as a near neighbour,” 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 neighbour 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 specially confusing because it comes soon after 30 PLA troops pitched tents, in mid-April, 19 kms 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 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 tranquillity 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 proceedure 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 defence 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 north-eastern 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 defences 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.


  1. Very nice to read. The visit has given little away by informing public as to what went behind closed doors. Probably, nothing happened of substance . My view has become firm after last month’s episode of incursion that India should wind down this relationship. India is forever compromising on foreign relations, positions where it could easily take an opposite view or taken
    by China. India is getting beaten on trade deficit. While it can not pursue oil exploration in South China sea with Vietnam, it can’t even complain about setting ports in Srilanka or Pakistan . And now it can’t even construct bunkers or roads close to border. What kind of client state India is becoming . I wish it start unchaining now.

  2. The island disputes in the South China Sea, securing the Indian Ocean sea routes to Africa , curbing tensions in the Korean Peninsula, confronting competition for Burma’s resources and involvement in national border incidents in the Himalayas are just rather to many fronts for China to be absorbing simultaneously, particularly if the result is a softening of the essential peaceful co-existence that has been the mark of the relationships that exist between China and the US, Japan and India respectively. With growth in China slowing , leading to a more restless domestic population that requires care and attention , Japan possible considering a nuclea capability to counter Pyongyang, the US strengthening its pivotal approach to the Far East and India unhappy about border incursions , now is not the moment for China to be going too far in provoking so many rivals and powers. At least not until it is economically and militarily still stronger. So it is carrot time. India needs to be kept as a non–aligned, mellow, neighbour.

  3. A most interesting piece and fascinating comments: no giving any benefit of the doubt here!

    One omission from all this is any reflexion on the relational triangle China/India/Pakistan. Has this now become irrelevant?

  4. Why not share the disputed territory. Much easier to codify.

  5. John – Let me pick from your last line, China will not respond. 50 years is a long time to keep porous borders, all because of the stupidities of staements like “not a blade of grass grows there” after getting tricked into hindi chini bhai bhai, the panchsheel et al.

    We are gullible by nature. we get tricked. Most importanatly, we are economicaly week, ill prepared to defend ourselves, misgoverend by middle men, anti national NGOs funded from dubious sources, resulting nothing ever happening in generations. on top of it we have a PM, who is lame duck, indecisive and incompetent to control the government.

    Have we ever talked tough even once with Chinese to vacate Aksai Chin, No? We have the fear that Arunachal Pradesh will go. have we tested the Chinese even once, No? We are softies ruled by incompetent people since independence.

    The very use of the word LAC means, we have ceceded. We are the aggressor, not them who occupy our territories.

    what greta shakes, if few Tibetans had demonstrated. each human lost 5 hrs on the road, why?

    We can not do a damn, let me assure you. we have will to defend our sovereign territories. Good luck. best regards, BK Syngal

    God save our country

  6. With two wimps like Khursheed and MMS at the helm (with their lady boss who also is not trustworthy), we all will have to wait and watch.

  7. We should not be taken in by sweet talk.While holding out our hand of friendship we should go ahead fast with strengthening our defences and infrastructure on our Northern borders.We cannot afford to be complacent.
    SK Misra

  8. Thanks John. I thought that the overall language was weak from the Chinese but the allusions to the US were the most telling. I think the Chinese either made a mistake at the border, or think that, in retrospect, it was a mistake – in either case, they clearly didn’t want to lose face.
    Of course the border issue will take a long time to settle and far more important will be what the two countries do in the “border countries”, Burma, Bhutan and, in a more complex sense, Tibet.
    But the biggest gesture of all is that this was Li’s first overseas trip – that can be no mistake: and the Indians as ever responded by affording the Chinese the no doubt unadulterated pleasure of suppressing the freedom of ordinary Delhiites to travel around their city without let or hindrance: ghastly!

  9. China is a fast moving dragon slowly and silently injecting slow poison to the never moving elephant.

  10. The Chinese follow the teachings of Tsun Zu who taught then how to defeat an enemy without a fight, by what we call today as psychological warfare. They have used this beautifully to undermine and scare us away from a viable strategic partnership with the US, Japan and Vietnam.

    All this while they continue nuclear, missile and conventional defence cooperation with Pakistan and expand their presence across the Indian Ocean. They are today in a position to severely undermine our cyber, communications and energy security.

    In Depsang they walked into an area which they have acknowledged is on the Ladakh side of Ladakh-Tibet border since 1632. This was reiterated in Treaties in the 19th century and was depicted on their maps till 1919. They then actually got a pusillanimous Manmohan Singh Government to retreat from and dismantle defence structures on its own territory. They know we are ruled by a tottering Government scared of its own shadow!!

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