Pledge to settle border row offers chance to boost Sino-India ties

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 3:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:49pm

The bridge-building that China has promised with neighbouring countries took another major step forward last week with Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to India. Seizing the diplomatic initiative, he met top officials including new Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lay out a fresh vision for relations that have too often been strained. During two days of talks, heavy with friendly rhetoric, he said Beijing was ready for a final settlement of border disputes and willing to substantially boost trade and investment. There is every reason why the nations should resolve differences and cooperate: as neighbours with one-third of the global population, there are enormous benefits for one another, the region and the world.

Modi's landslide election win last month has dramatically changed circumstances. Like President Xi Jinping , he is reform-minded, his priorities being overhauling the economy, cracking down on corruption and building infrastructure. During his 12 years as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, he was markedly China-friendly, visiting four times to attract trade and investment. It would make sense to use his experience as the model to rejuvenate India's flagging economy.

China is only too aware of the opportunities. Premier Li Keqiang was the first foreign leader to phone Modi after he took office. Wang's mission during his visit was to smooth the way for talks, the most immediate being a meeting between Xi and Modi at the BRICS summit in Brazil next month. Both leaders will visit each other's countries this year.

Diplomacy and strengthening dialogue are the best ways forward. Bilateral relations are riven with mistrust, the disputed border over which a brief war was fought in 1962 that China won, being at the centre. Also problematic are China's firm ties with Pakistan, Indian support for Tibetan exiles and India's warm ties with the US and Japan (Modi's first overseas trip next month will be to Tokyo). Nor is trade as it should be for such giant neighbours: volume in the first quarter was US$21.98 billion, skewed in China's favour by US$8.84 billion.

The trade deficit featured high in talks between Wang and his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj. Industrial parks, high-speed railway lines, power stations, pharmaceuticals, software and tourism featured in discussions. Trade and investment will help ties, but the real shift will come only when the issues at the heart of discord are settled. Wang has offered hope of a fresh beginning by making the border row a priority.