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China's Li Keqiang's ups his charm

When a panda wants to hug


China's Li Keqiang came here right after the Ladakh standoff and wagged no fingers while turning up the charm. We should take note of just why that happened, writes Subir Bhaumik.

The Chinese rhetoric on territorial questions during foreign minister Wang Yi's tour of four Southeast Asian nations and Premier Li Keqiang's visit to India that followed were markedly different. And in those differences may lie some significant outtakes for Indian policy makers. For one, all through his six-day tour of south-east Asia, Wang Yi brought to bear 'ample historical and jurisprudential evidences' on Chinese claims in the South China Sea. During his meeting with Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, Wang Yi even went to the extent of saying that "China is a major force when it comes to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. " In all the Southeast Asian countries that Wang Yi visited, he emphasised that China has 'clear steadfast and consistent resolve in safeguarding state sovereignty and territorial integrity'.

Premier Li's visit came barely a fortnight after the Depsang bulge confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh. India had gone to the extent of threatening to call off foreign minister Salman Khurshid's May 9 Beijing trip if the Chinese troops did not pull back. The Chinese not only pulled back (though some say the Indians did that as well) to pave the way for Khurshid's visit but also stressed that the Depsang incident was an "isolated one". Premier Li was candid enough to recognise that the two neighbours had problems but he kept stressing throughout his visit that both China and India have mechanisms in place to handle tensions on the disputed border. Responding to Manmohan Singh's emphasis on the border dispute as a key issue, Premier Li emphasised on expediting the process to find a durable solution. Far from raising the 'southern Tibet' claims or pushing India hard to deny sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government, Premier Li went on to offer a 'handshake across the Himalayas' and stressed that "China and India are friends' and there was no need to contain each other.

And there lies the catch - no need to contain each other. Beijing is worried about US president Barack Obama's "Asia Pivot" and Japanese premier Shinzo Abe's "Arc of Freedom" which is seen by the Chinese as post-Cold War containment strategies aimed to deny them the strategic momentum for primacy in the global order. Both the US and Japan have been wooing India to join a quadrilateral security pact involving Australia, Japan, India and the US. India seeks to develop defence relations with each of these countries but on a bilateral basis. That it has rebuffed feelers to join the quadrilateral security pact is something China has not missed out on. Hence Li's statement - we are "friends" and don't need to "contain" each other.

As China's relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours and Japan gets increasingly tense on territorial issues, the US steps in with its 'Asia pivot', much to Beijing's chagrin. It is only expected that China's new leadership will seek to break the jinx by looking north and south towards Russia and India. President Xi Jinping's first overseas visit to Moscow and Premier Li Keqiang's first overseas visit to India is indicative of Chinese priorities. India may not as yet be a major power, but, as Parag Khanna observes in his Second World, it is a major 'swing-state' which can change the regional balance in Asia. The Chinese also clearly realise India's potential - a large population, its civilisation as ancient as China's, a large and robustly growing economy, a developed service sector and more. Hence Premier Li's repeated push for 'strategic consensus' with India.

Apart from strategic reasons, China is also seeking out the Indian market as trade with the US and the EU begins to stagnate. Bilateral trade has grown 30 times over ten years but it dropped from a peak of $74 billion in 2011 to $66 billion in 2012. Manmohan Singh is uncomfortable with the 'colonial legacy' of exporting raw materials like iron ore, India's top export to China. Trade alone cannot create a mutual interdependence that two-way investments can. Hence Li's stress on ramping up Chinese investments in India, and his assurance to allow Indian products greater market access while asking Indian pharmaceutical and infotech corporations, which enjoy a global competitive edge, to invest in China. This is why he kept assuring many that China is not seeking a trade surplus. Building greater synergy between the two economies is a Chinese priority not just for the promise of an economic breakthrough, but also because it could help woo away India from a future 'contain China' effort. Li's proposals for facilitating a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar growth corridor and for greater cooperation between India, Pakistan and China makes both economic and strategic sense, as Beijing seeks to allay Indian fears of a 'string of pearls' by offering cooperation rather than competition in India's immediate neighbourhood. Chinesedeveloped ports in Sonadia (Bangladesh) or Kyaukpyu (Myanmar) can also be used by India to access its own remote North-East.

Li knows this and so he subtly dropped hints that China's 'lookout' policy will also help India's "Look East" from the North-East. Behind all the charm that Li exuded during his stay in India lies a calculated effort to cultivate India. We really ought to take note of Li's parting reminder, where he used a Chinese proverb: 'next door neighbours are more useful than distant relatives'.

The writer is an analyst and author

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