December 13, 2017
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Li Keqiang’s charm offensive

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang Photo: Friends of Europe / Flickr
The Chinese rhetoric on territorial questions during Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tour of four Southeast Asian nations and Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India were markedly different.

All throughout his six-day tour of Southeast Asia, Wang Yi brought to bear “ample historical and jurisprudential evidences” on Chinese claims in the South China Sea. During his meeting with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelgawa, the Chinese foreign minister even went to the extent of saying that “China is a major force when it comes to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.” In all the nations that Wang Yi visited, he emphasized that China has “clear steadfast and consistent resolve in safeguarding state sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Premier Li’s visit came barely a fortnight after the Depsang Bulge confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh. India had gone to the extent of threatening to call off Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s May 9 trip to Beijing if the Chinese troops did not pull back. The Chinese not only pulled back (though some say the Indians did that as well) to pave the way for Khurshid’s visit, but stressed that the Depsang Incident was an “isolated” event.

Premier Li was candid enough to recognize the two neighbors had problems, but he kept stressing throughout his visit that both China and India have mechanisms in place to handle tensions on the disputed border. Responding to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s emphasis on the border dispute as a key issue, Premier Li emphasized on expediting the process to find a durable solution.

Far from raising the ‘southern Tibet’ claims or pushing India to deny sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government, Premier Li went on to offer a “handshake across the Himalayas” and stressed that “China and India are friends” and that there was no need to contain each other.

There lies the catch. Beijing is worried over US President Barack Obama’s ‘Asia Pivot’ and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe’s ‘Arc of Freedom’ which is seen by the Chinese as post-Cold War containment strategies aimed to deny them the strategic momentum for primacy in the global order.

Both the US and the Japanese have been wooing India to join a quadrilateral security pact involving Australia, Japan, India and the US.

India seeks to develop defense relations with each of these countries but on a bilateral basis. That it has rebuffed feelers to join the quadrilateral security pact is something China has not missed out on. Hence Li’s statement: we are friends and don’t need to contain each other.

As China’s relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors and Japan gets increasingly tense on the territorial issues, the US steps in with its ‘Asia pivot’, much to Beijing’s chagrin. It is only to be expected that China’s new leadership will seek to break this pact by looking north and south toward Russia and India.

President Xi Jinping’s first overseas visit to Moscow and Premier Li Keqiang’s first overseas visit to India is indicative of Chinese priorities.

India may not as yet be a major power, but as Parag Khanna observes in his classic ‘Second World’, it is a major swing-state which can change the regional balance in Asia.

The Chinese also realize India’s potential— a billion-plus population; its civilization as ancient as China’s; a large growing economy; developed service sector and more. Hence Premier Li’s repeated push for ‘strategic consensus’ with India.

Apart from strategic reasons, China is also seeking out the Indian market as trade with the US and the EU begins to stagnate. The bilateral trade has grown 30 times over 10 years but it dropped from the peak US$74 billion in 2011 to $66 billion in 2012.

Manmohan Singh is uncomfortable with the colonial legacy of exporting raw materials such as iron ore, India’s top export to China. Trade alone cannot create the mutual interdependence that two-way investments can. Hence Li’s stress on pushing up Chinese investments in India, his assurances to allow Indian products greater market access, and inviting India’s industries like pharmaceuticals and IT—which enjoy a global competitive edge—to invest in China.

Therein lies his assurance that China is not seeking a trade surplus. Building greater synergy between the two economies is a Chinese priority not just for the promise of an economic breakthrough, but also because it could help woo India away from a future ‘contain China’ effort.

Li’s proposals for facilitating a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar growth corridor and for greater cooperation between India, Pakistan and China make both economic and strategic sense, as Beijing seeks to allay Indian fears of a ‘string of pearls’ by offering cooperation rather than competition in India’s immediate neighborhood.

Chinese-developed ports in Sonadia (Bangladesh) or Kyaukphyu (Myanmar) can also be used by India to access its own remote northeast—hence Li’s subtle hint that China’s ‘Lookout policy’ will also help India’s ‘Look East’ objectives.

Behind all the charm that Li exuded during his stay in India lies a calculated effort to cultivate India—hence Li’s parting reminder with a Chinese proverb: “Next door neighbors are more useful than distant relatives.”   

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author of 'Insurgent Crossfire' and 'Troubled Periphery'

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