A welcome candour

Singh-Li talks could be the first step towards a new equilibrium in Sino-Indian relations

The military intrusion into eastern Ladakh by the People's Liberation Army last month has shaken Delhi. India's immediate focus was on defusing the crisis. This week, Delhi has had an opportunity to reflect, together with the visiting Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, on the longer-term implications of the Depsang crisis. While Beijing appears to downplay the incident, Delhi has rightly recognised that the Depsang intrusion may not be the last of its kind and portends instability on the long and contested frontier with China. After his talks with Li, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underlined one important reality — that the steady improvement in Sino-Indian relations over the last quarter of a century was based on the successful maintenance of peace on the border. Singh was leaving Li in no doubt that the PLA's new aggressiveness would inevitably undermine the prospects for a cooperative relationship with China.

Singh rightly insisted that without an early resolution of the boundary dispute, tensions on the frontier are bound to increase and called on Li to revive the stalled boundary talks. Singh's tough new approach was also reflected in another important issue in bilateral relations — respect for each other's core interests. Beijing has traditionally got away with demands that Delhi comply with Chinese concerns, while offering no relief on India's. This time round, there is an emphasis on reciprocity. The joint statement issued after the talks between Singh and Li states that "the two sides will not allow their territories to be used for activities against the other". If China is concerned about the activities of the exiled Tibetan leader, Dalai Lama, on Indian soil, Delhi wants Beijing to end its sanctuary to violent insurgent groups from the Northeast.

Singh rightly matched new candour with constructive proposals for greater Chinese transparency on Beijing's plans to develop the shared water resources of the Brahmaputra River. He also pressed Li to take steps to limit the rapidly widening trade deficit in Beijing's favour and offered to facilitate Chinese investments in India's manufacturing and infrastructure. Li's visit to Delhi, his first foreign destination as PM, was to be a moment when the bilateral relationship was to be elevated to a higher level. While that opportunity may have been lost, the Depsang interlude has opened the door for the construction of a new equilibrium in Sino-Indian relations based on realism. A candid discussion of the new challenges is only the first step forward in a long and arduous journey that Delhi and Beijing have now begun.

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