Li Keqiang

Focus of Li Keqiang's maiden trip as premier will be wooing India from US

Premier will also visit Pakistan and Europe on his maiden trip, but Delhi ties will dominate following recent stand-off over disputed border

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 May, 2013, 5:06am

Premier Li Keqiang aims to boost China's geopolitical importance in South Asia during his maiden diplomatic trip, starting tomorrow, amid concerns over Beijing's growing assertiveness in border disputes, analysts said.

India is the first stop on Li's first overseas trip since becoming premier in March. He will meet Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh before heading to Pakistan. After Pakistan, he will visit Switzerland and Germany.

With the military modernisation of China, there is a rising sense in both nations that they will fight a war someday
Wang Dehua, Shanghai Academic

In Pakistan, Li will meet President Asif Ali Zardari, a regular visitor to China. He is also expected to reassess the Sino-Pakistan relationship with Nawaz Sharif, who is set to form the next government after his Pakistan Muslim League's victory in last Saturday's election.

But Li's maiden trip is expected to be dominated by India, with Beijing wary of India getting closer to the United States. One of Li's core messages to New Delhi will be that the two rivals can be good neighbours.

"It's in China's interest to see that India is not getting very close to America," the chairman of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Alternatives think tank, Mohan Guruswamy, said. "The US is trying hard to bring India close to them as it wants to balance China with India, and India doesn't want to play the game."

A former Indian diplomat, Kishan Rana, said Beijing wanted to deepen strategic ties with India, even though the two nations had recently been involved in another stand-off in a long-running border dispute.

Border disputes would remain central to Li's talks with Indian officials, Rana said, but both sides would also attempt to focus on other issues, such as their economies and trade.

"We can expect a major push from both sides to deepen and intensify relations," he said. "Today, when each is in resurgence, pursuing its own growth and transformation trajectory, how can the relationship be anything other than strategic?"

Li will be given a ceremonial reception and visit Raj Ghat to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi, the late Indian spiritual and political leader. He will also attend a banquet hosted by Singh on Monday and is expected to meet the chairwoman of India's ruling United Progressive Alliance, Sonia Gandhi.

A senior diplomat in Beijing said on Thursday that China was working "very hard" on solving border disputes with India at an early date and the recent border tensions were not affecting bilateral ties.

"We have a number of mechanisms available to us for resolving the boundary issues such as special representative consultations," Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao said at a press briefing. "We have both been working very hard to find a solution at an early date.

"There are some historical issues between China and India including the boundary issue but we believe we have more common interests than disputes and more co-operation than competition, which is the consensus between leaders of the two countries."

In a sign that India will not let the border row derail high-level talks, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said after a trip to Beijing last week that he had asked Chinese officials how the three-week stand-off - in which India said Chinese troops intruded into its territory and pitched tents in the Depsang Valley in Ladakh - had happened, while adding that now was not the right time to "apportion blame".

But whether the trip can put strained bilateral ties back on track remains to be seen, with the border row having fuelled perceptions that China is getting more assertive in its territorial claims, and not only in the South China and East China seas.

"With the military modernisation of China, there is a rising sense in both nations that they will fight a war someday," said Professor Wang Dehua , from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

India is also worried about China's involvement in Pakistan, particularly at the port of Gwadar, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Operational control of the port has been transferred to China, triggering concerns that it could be used for military purposes to contain India.

"India is allergic to the relationship between China and Pakistan," Wang said.

Analysts said economic co-operation would become a major area where the two nations could seek common ground.

Li will address an event hosted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Indian Council of World Affairs. The nations would also discuss simplifying visa processes for businesses, and the setting up of a Chinese industrial park in India, Khurshid said.

India is also expected to push China to import more goods to redress trade imbalances.

Additional reporting by Zhuang Pinghui