Border issues the key to Sino-Indian trust

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 December, 2010, 12:00am


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First US President Barack Obama went to India. Now Premier Wen Jiabao has paid a three-day visit. That leaders of the world's most powerful and most populous countries should call on the second-most populous in quick succession may not seem so remarkable - except that this is the first visit by a Chinese president or premier for four years. Beijing's relationship with the emerging economic superpower next door has taken a back seat to its preoccupation with the United States. Despite increasing economic ties, Sino-Indian relations remain fraught with mutual suspicion and distrust.

Obama's diplomatic mission - to strengthen Indian-American ties and secure India's strategic role in reasserting American power and influence in the region - served to underline regional tensions between the two Asian giants. Wen's mission was to put Indians at ease over China's rise. Like Obama, he was accompanied by a high-powered business delegation which sealed billions of dollars worth of deals. In the face of political difficulties, trade has proved the most fruitful avenue for developing the bilateral relationship. Sino-Indian trade is on track to rise nearly 50 per cent to US$60 billion this year and the two sides have agreed on a target of US$100 billion by 2015. But reassuring his hosts about China's friendly intentions was the more important task for Wen, whose next stop was for talks with Beijing's ally and India's enemy Pakistan.

China and India can best serve the interests of their peoples, regional stability and global development by working towards common goals. This means they must make concrete progress towards settling their arguments. Given their historical differences and rivalry, this is not easy. A disputed 4,000 kilometre border manned by hundreds of thousands of troops is at the heart of the problem, which includes a number of other issues that exacerbate tensions from time to time, such as India's hosting of the Dalai Lama and his followers, competition over oil and gas resources and China's damming of the Yarlung Zangbo River from Tibet, which enters India as the Brahmaputra. Wen promised that China would consider India's interests before continuing with this work.

Economically, the complementary strengths of China's industry and India's services sector form the basis for co-operation. But increasing trade has not narrowed differences or dispelled palpable mistrust. Recent evidence of that includes widely publicised Chinese live-fire land and air exercises on the boundary between Qinghai and Tibet near the disputed border, an increase in Indian troop strength along the China-India border in Tibet and the announcement of plans for a new Indian air base.

Ahead of Wen's visit, he and his Indian counterpart Dr Manmohan Singh set the right tone when they spoke of the need for friendship and trust. It is good that China is making a bigger effort, and that the two have now agreed to press on with efforts to resolve lingering border disputes, to meet more often and install a hotline between their offices. But words need to be backed with deeds.

China hopes to begin discussions on a free-trade area between the two giants. While this would enhance their parallel development and the climate for settling disputes, it would not make the region safer. China's strategic friendships with India's neighbours, particularly supplies of military hardware and nuclear technology to Pakistan, have driven India closer to the US. The need for trust is greater than ever. But that will not come without sincere efforts to settle differences, starting with serious dialogue on border issues.