India and China look to put knotty relations on new footing

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 16, 2014 5:10 PM

By Rupam Jain Nair

AHMEDABAD India (Reuters) - The electricity board in this Indian city has been instructed to avoid any power cuts and officials have been told to have their shoes polished and their shirts tucked in: Nothing has been left to chance for this week's visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is determined to build closer relations with the world's second-largest economy, whose leader comes with pledges to invest billions of dollars in railways, industrial parks and roads.

He hopes that when Xi arrives in his home state of Gujarat on Wednesday, marking the first visit to India by a Chinese president since 2006, the leaders of the world's two most populous nations will establish a personal rapport.

"The two ... have the opportunity to craft a new kind of relationship between great powers that is very different from the Western-dominated, post-World War Two model of great power ties," said Jabin Jacob of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi.

"It remains to be seen, however, whether Modi and Xi can together summon the vision and statesmanship needed to grab the opportunity," he wrote in a commentary before the visit.

In one sign that India wants the Xi visit to be a success, New Delhi asked the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to reschedule an event in the capital so that it would not clash with the Chinese president's trip there on Friday.

The Dalai Lama, who Beijing labels a separatist seeking an independent Tibet, has lived in India since fleeing across the Himalayas after a failed uprising in his homeland in 1959.


But despite the moonlight dinner that the two leaders will share in a luxury tent on the banks of the Sabarmati river as Modi celebrates his 64th birthday, strains between the nuclear-armed neighbors remain, and India's prime minister has made it clear that his regional foreign policy will be robust.

In a little more than 100 days since he came to power, Modi has engaged in what his government describes as "an intensive state of global engagement", reaching out to smaller neighbors and clasping Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a bear hug on his first major trip outside South Asia.

Business ties between India and China may be growing fast, but relations between the two rising powers are also defined by competition for energy and regional clout, as well as a festering border dispute that led to a brief war 52 years ago.

India said on Tuesday it would firmly defend its 3,500-km (2,200-mile) border with China after domestic media reported a new face-off on the disputed frontier.

The Hindustan Times reported that more than 200 soldiers of the People's Liberation Army crossed into what India considers its territory in Ladakh in the western Himalayas last week, and set about building a 2-km (1.2-mile) road there.

Separately, Modi's government has eased restrictions on building roads and military facilities along its border with China to close the gap on its neighbor's superior transport network and take a stronger stance toward Beijing.

And this week, India extended a $100 million export credit for defense deals with Vietnam, one of China's rivals for influence in the South China Sea.

Modi is not the only regional leader seeking strategic influence, defense partners and economic opportunities.

Earlier this month Abe visited Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, asserting Tokyo's interest in a region where it has ceded influence to China.

Xi followed this week with trips to the Maldives, the Indian Ocean island nation that New Delhi has long considered its area of influence, and Sri Lanka, where the two sides built on a blossoming relationship by agreeing to launch negotiations for a free trade agreement.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Mike Collett-White)