The leaders of India and China played down their recent border dispute and other tensions Monday, pledging to work together for regional stability and the economic growth of the world’s two most populous nations.
Friction has been building between the Asian giants in recent years as they vie for regional influence and access to fuel needed to feed their growing economies. Li Keqiang’s trip to India, his first visit abroad since becoming Chinese premier, seems intended to minimize those tensions.
The three-day visit is part of an outreach mission by the new Chinese leadership to large emerging economies aimed at balancing Beijing’s fraught ties with the United States.
In that vein, Li—and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—sought Monday to focus on the opportunities for cooperation between their nations.
‘Both the prime minister and I believe that there are far more shared interests between China and India than the differences we have,’ Li said at a joint news conference.
‘Without the common development of China and India, Asia won’t become strong and the world won’t become a better place,’ he said.
The summit was far heavier on symbolism than substance. The two sides signed eight minor agreements. But both leaders insisted the cooperation was important, and they promised to build on it, announcing that Singh would make a visit to China later in the year.
‘I shared with Premier Li my view that the rise of China and India is good for the world and that the world has enough space to accommodate the growth aspirations of both our peoples. To make this a reality, it is important to build understanding between our two peoples,’ Singh said.
‘We agreed that both sides must work to strengthen greater trust and confidence, which, in turn, will permit much larger cooperation,’ he added.
But the two nations have deep disputes, including China’s unwavering support of India’s archrival, Pakistan. The presence in India of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile are a constant irritant to China.
China already sees itself as Asia’s great power, while India hopes its increasing economic and military might—though still far below its neighbor’s—will eventually put it in the same league.
While China has worked to shore up relationships with Nepal and Sri Lanka in India’s traditional South Asian sphere of influence, India has been venturing into partnerships with Southeast Asian nations.
Even their $61.5 billion in trade last year was a source of tension because it was heavily skewed in favor of China. Singh said he spoke to Li about getting greater access to Chinese markets for Indian goods.
Their most volatile dispute remains their border disagreement, which led to a bloody war in 1962 and flared up last month, just weeks before Li’s planned visit.
India said Chinese troops crossed the de facto border on April 15 and pitched camp in the Depsang Valley in the Ladakh region of eastern Kashmir. New Delhi responded with diplomatic protests and then moved its soldiers just 300 meters (yards) from the Chinese position.
The two sides negotiated a peaceful end to the standoff three weeks later by withdrawing troops to their original positions in the Ladakh area.
Li said they spoke candidly about the dispute. Both leaders said they agreed that preserving peace along the border was crucial to maintaining growth and asked mediators from both countries to work toward a framework for reaching a settlement.
During the talks, both sides agreed that Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon will visit China within weeks to discuss the border issue, Indian Ambassador to China S. Jaishankar told reporters. He said Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony is also scheduled to visit China soon.
Indian media reports said a border cooperation agreement under negotiation proposes a freezing of troop levels in the disputed border region as the two countries make efforts to settle the issue.
India says China is occupying 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) of its territory in the Aksai Chin plateau in the western Himalayas, while China claims around 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. The two sides have held 15 rounds of fruitless border talks over the past decade.
In a joint statement, the two sides agreed to cooperate on energy and environmental conservation and disaster management and to address their trade imbalance while trying to increase trade to $100 billion by 2015.
Li’s Indian mission is part of China’s broader international outreach intended to balance its relations with Washington.
‘As the two largest economies of the world and the most important political powers of the Asia-Pacific region, China-U.S. relations in every respect still remain the pivot of China’s foreign policies,’ said Wang Lian, an international relations scholar at Peking University in Beijing. But, Wang said, ‘as China’s political and economic influence increase continuously, China needs to boost its bilateral and multilateral relations with developing countries so as not to totally rely on its relations with the U.S.’
Chinese state media heralded Li’s India visit with headlines that the ‘Dragon and elephant dance together’ and coverage that emphasized common interests—trade and regional peace—and played down divisions.
Ultimately, Beijing hopes that making common cause with India and the other big emerging economies will help them rewrite the rules of the U.S.-dominated international order. Li’s boss, Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, made his first overseas trip to Russia and then to South Africa for a summit of those new big economies, the BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
In an interview with the Xinhua News Agency, Chinese Ambassador to India Wei Wei said Beijing and Delhi are working together on climate change, world trade rules and revising the international finance system. The cooperation ‘shows the two countries’ crucial role on major issues of global governance,’ the ambassador was quoted as saying.
Li is to visit Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany after leaving India.