Sometimes body language and gestures tell us a lot about the social dynamics between two individuals. During the just concluded visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India, the mannerisms on display between Li and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demonstrated a newfound bonhomie.
The camaraderie comes on the heels of recent tensions on the border where Chinese troops allegedly penetrated 19 kilometers into Indian territory and set up camp. The incident enraged the nation and prompted the media to indulge in unbridled jingoism, almost creating a diplomatic face-off.
But Li’s visit changed the whole discourse. The Chinese leader set the tone before landing in India through his byline in The Hindu. In his article, “A handshake across the Himalayas”, Li addressed the need to solve difficult historical questions and take a long-term view in India-China relations. He also emphasized the need to build trust rather than suspicion.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
While the Chinese leader dwelt on idealism, Singh spoke plainly on a range of issues, from trans-border river issues to bilateral trade.
India’s Ambassador to China, Dr. S. Jaishankar told the media after the meeting that the need to build greater trust was paramount among the points raised. He added that peace on the border is the foundation of the India-China relationship. Further, both sides agreed for Special Representatives to meet and discuss further measures aimed at strengthening peace on the border.
After two days of intense discussions the two sides signed eight agreements, on issues ranging from trade to culture and water resources. Of these, economics were the main focus, and with good reason.
According to news reports in 2012, bilateral trade between the two countries was US$66 billion, a decline from the previous year’s US$74 billion. As such, the two countries have set a target of increasing bilateral trade to US$100 billion by 2015. An article in the Indian Express voiced support for the agreements to pursue a regional trade agreement, set up three working groups under the Joint Economic Group, and provide mutual help in developing industrial zones.
Yet, it is not economics but an idea floated by the Chinese Premier that has attracted the attention of observers of international politics.
In his byline and in a speech that he gave on the last day of his New Delhi visit, Li emphasized that for Asia to drive the global economy China and India must come together. Further, he emphasized that the Asian century will not come about if China and India fail to develop harmoniously together.
Is Li’s vision rhetoric or pragmatism? Opinions are divided.
“It is sheer rhetoric and an attempt to move India away from the U.S.,” Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, Program Director of the Aspen Institute India, told The Diplomat. “Beijing is worried that India is being promoted by Washington as a counterbalance to China. They know that the only country that has potential to emerge as a regional power is India.”
Chaudhury added, “The Communist country is very uncertain about India. That’s why it talks about regional cooperation with New Delhi.”
According to Choudhury, Afghanistan is the sole country where it serves the interests of both countries to have political stability.
“Otherwise China is not bothered about our concerns,” he said. “It is supporting Pakistan and arming the Islamic Republic, which it knows to be a source of terrorism in South Asia and a threat to India.”
C Raja Mohan echoes the same sentiment, writing in The Indian Express that “ideological romanticism and political timidity overwhelms common sense in dealing with China… What mattered, and is lying in plain sight, is Beijing’s growing assertiveness on territorial disputes with all its neighbors. In the last few years, China has used military force in pushing its extraordinary territorial claims against Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.”
While Indian media outlets and experts see a dichotomy between Chinese rhetoric and reality and remain largely skeptical about Beijing’s intentions, in China a different picture has emerged. Chinese media has positively reported on Li’s visit to India.
Quoting the official China Daily, The Hindu writes, “Despite China and India’s arguments about territory issues and trade imbalances, Premier Li Keqiang’s stop in India during his first overseas trip since he took the office has undoubtedly sent a positive and friendly signal.”
On balance, the fact that a Chinese premier chose India as the first destination abroad bodes well for the future relationship of the two neighbors. Viewing a friendly gesture through lenses of paranoia will cloud our vision and hamper growth.
India has become a mature democracy with a robust economy that is an important player on the international stage. The nation’s dealings with its neighbor should confidently reflect this global standing. New Delhi should not allow its evolving relationship with Beijing to be a prisoner of the past.