With his tripto Indialast week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was just the latest in a formidable list of political leaders who have set foot in the country in recent months, following visits by US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Wen’s trip was in part to mark 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two Asian giants, who were at war as recently as 1962 over the possession of the Aksai Chin region and the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Since this clash, the world’s two most populous countries have remained at loggerheads and share a deep mutual distrust. But while ties between the two have long been icy due to territorial, geopolitical and trade differences, bilateral relations have been particularly fraught over the past year or so.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Last year, for example, Beijing objected to visits by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its own (indeed, China has also long expressed its displeasure over India’s granting of a home to the Tibetan monk).
More recently, in August this year, India cancelled defence exchanges with China after the latter refused to issue a visa to a Kashmir-based Indian general. India, meanwhile, has been upset over the Chinese practice of issuing stapled visas to the Kashmiri people since last year.
Against this complex backdrop, it was no surprise to hear China's envoy to India, Zhang Yan, tell reporters ahead of Wen's visit that ‘Relations are very fragile, very easy to be damaged and very difficult to repair. Therefore they need special care…’
Yet even though Wen downplayed the competition between the two Asian giants by stating on arrival that ‘there’s enough space in the world for the development of both China and India,’ his soothing words weren’t matched by any discernible progress in strategic ties.
This failure was underscored by the fact that the Chinese refused to address any of India's core strategic concerns, be it over the border dispute, the recognition of Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India, Pakistan’s alleged role in instigating terrorism against India or the asymmetrical trade equation between the two countries.
Rather than tackle head on the key issue of the disputed border area of Arunachal Pradesh—which China has taken to calling ‘South Tibet’—Wen instead pushed the dispute to merely one consideration in a 10-pronged strategy to improve China-India relations over the long term. India responded in kind, refusing to include its usual support for China's sovereignty over Tibet and the so-called ‘One China Principle’ in the joint statement.
In addition, Wen also resisted India's efforts to secure any reference to Pakistan's alleged role in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai in the statement, and there was also no significant shift in Beijing's opposition to India's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.