China's Premier Tries to Make Friends in India

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is welcomed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on May 20 in New Delhi, India Photograph by Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Indian pundits for the past month have been livid about an incursion by Chinese troops across the disputed border in the Himalayas. China’s soliders moved into the area on April 15, and in early May, with a scheduled visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang looming, the two sides reached an agreement, with the People’s Liberation Army soldiers moving back across the “Line of Actual Control” and India pulling back some troops of its own. Gopalaswami Parthasarathy of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi recently penned a column putting China’s recent actions in context of the Middle Kingdom’s “long history of imperial arrogance” and said the April incident was a “violation of India’s territorial integrity.”

Others have joined in the condemnations of the Chinese. In a column entitled “China’s India Land Grab,” Parthasarathy’s collegue Brahma Chellaney likened China’s actions toward India with the Chinese government’s confrontational policy against Japan and the Philippines regarding disputed islands in the East and South China Seas. “With its ‘peaceful rise’ giving way to an increasingly sharp-elbowed approach to its neighbors, China has broadened its ‘core interests’—which brook no compromise—and territorial claims, while showing a growing readiness to take risks to achieve its goals,” according to Chellaney, a professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research. With the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh distracted by scandals and economic problems, writes Chellaney, “China is clearly seeking to exploit India’s political disarray to alter the reality on the ground.”

Yesterday, Premier Li arrived in New Delhi for his first overseas trip since becoming the No. 2 official in China, behind President Xi Jinping, in March. The official line from China’s state media: Sino-Indian relations are just fine, thanks very much. One example of the optimistic tone in the Chinese press is this panglossian assessment of Sino-Indian ties from the official China Daily newspaper. “Long-term prospects are very bright,” the paper reported, quoting Hu Hu Shisheng, director of the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceania Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. Hu touted potential business ties between companies in the world’s two most populous countries. “Joint ventures can build up our own brand of ‘Chindia’ and set up our own quality standards,” according to Hu. “Together we have a market of more than 2.7 billion customers.”

Li’s objective is to tell wary Indians that they have nothing to fear from their powerful neighbor to the north, despite everything you’ve heard about China trying to intimidate India over disputed borders. The goal is to woo India away from the U.S. “China is trying to sell hard the idea of an independent foreign policy,” says Srikanth Kondapalli, professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Which means creating kinds of enclaves and not joining the U.S. bandwagon.”

So far, though, the summit may not be reassuring Indians worried about Chinese intentions. Protesters in the capital carried anti-China placards and Indian flags. In the joint statement issued by Singh and Li today, the Chinese didn’t sufficiently address worries about last month’s incursion, according to Kondapalli. “China did not assuage Indian feelings,” he says. “What was mentioned was kind of incremental progress. Nothing spectacular came out of this.”

India is unlikely to rush into China’s warm embrace, but Li did win some points in the joint declaration he and Singh issued today, according to Kondapalli. For instance, the Chinese and Indians agreed to cooperate in the Indian Ocean to combat pirates from such places as Somalia. That, he says, “would be a gain for China, because China is then coming into the Indian Ocean region, without reciprocal gestures toward India in the South China Sea or East China Sea.”

The joint statement also referred to the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, which date back to the days of Nehru and Zhou Enlai. The principles themselves are rather tame: They include mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. But earlier meetings between Indian and Chinese leaders haven’t mentioned them, says Kondapalli. Today, however, Singh and Li not only highlighted the Five Principles; they also agreed the two countries should be focusing on celebrations for the 60th anniversary next year.

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