How to soothe the friction with China

India can look to the Cold War for examples of creative diplomacy

Li Keqiang, China's shiny new premier, has come and gone, and the commentariat is already looking toward Manmohan Singh's visit to Beijing later this year. Yet, troubling questions about China's intrusion into Ladakh last month linger.

India was understandably aggrieved by China's surprise incursion. The move embarrassed the Singh government and was an affront to India's dignity. Indeed, given the almost non-existent strategic value of the territory temporarily occupied, some speculate this was its principal purpose.

Reopening issues of risk management and reduction ought to be high on New Delhi's agenda for Manmohan Singh's trip to China later this year.

New Delhi's response it could have done no less was to dispatch troops of its own, resulting in a potentially dangerous standoff that, through poor communication, faulty decision-making, or plain bad luck, could have escalated into a genuinely dangerous confrontation. Fortunately, prudence and common sense prevailed and both sides withdrew their forces, reverting to the status quo ante and clearing the way first for External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid's previously planned trip to Beijing, and last week, Li's visit to India.

Singh's detractors criticise the prime minister for a timid response to Beijing's Ladakh intrusion. His supporters insist the resolution of the mini-crisis vindicates the low-key manner in which New Delhi handled the affair. Standing alongside Li, Singh noted that "existing mechanisms proved their worth" in connection with "the recent incident in the western sector." Perhaps, perhaps not but they certainly didn't prevent the infiltration and its attendant risks in the first place.

What the Chinese were up to in Ladakh remains unclear. To what extent the infiltration was sanctioned at the highest levels in Beijing and whether it presages further moves of a similar nature is also unclear. Until New Delhi receives satisfactory answers to these questions and don't bet on that Indian defence officials will remain on-edge.

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