Chinese Premier Li’s India Visit: Sifting through the Charm Offensive

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 14

Premier Li and Prime Minister Singh

A state visit to India by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in late May this year has taken on more importance in the wake of an unusual combination of diplomatic openness and military tension between China and India. Li’s visit was not only the first ever visit by a top Chinese leader, but significantly Li’s first visit outside China after becoming Premier. Chinese media quoted Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh as saying that Li reached out to him immediately after assuming office and chose India as his first foreign destination as Premier. Li evidently has made Chinese relations with India a personal priority (Xinhua, May 22–23). It would seem, however, that personal priorities by themselves are not enough to ensure a smooth relationship. Li’s visit took place against the backdrop of the border incursion by China to the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Western sector of the India-China border, in an area known as the Depsang Bulge. New Delhi claimed that a platoon of Chinese troops intruded ten kilometers across the LAC on the Indian side of the border and set up five tents in the disputed area. Nor have developments since that time, including a border incursion this week, been encouraging for Sino-Indian ties (Times of India, July 10; Xinhua, July 10).

This is not the first time that such an incident has had the potential to derail Sino-Indian diplomacy. It may be recalled that while the two sides were making preparations for the meeting between the two leaders, the news of the Chinese intrusion in the Ladakh sector on April 15 cast a shadow not only on Sino-Indian relations, but also on the very possibility of the meeting occurring. Unsurprisingly, media in India reported extensively on the border incident, echoing the public’s mood and concern (Economic Times [India], May 12).

To put the issue in perspective, it may be noted that India and China have unresolved borders, part of the two areas where the countries meet, which according to India’s estimate runs for about 3,480 kilometers (or roughly 2,160 miles). Although the two countries have tried to solve the territorial dispute both before and after the Sino-Indian war in 1962, even after the 16th round of the “Special Representative Talks” in 2003, the two countries seem to be far from resolving the complex border dispute. Despite the non-resolution of the dispute, the borders have remained peaceful. This is largely due to a slew of bilateral agreements and institutional mechanisms between the two countries, which have ensured the surfeit of this peace and tranquility. In the context of Li’s visit to India and China’s crossing of the border, it is all the more essential to refer to some of the core features of the agreements to understand and appreciate the recent outcome.

The most significant breakthrough in the bilateral relationship between the two countries was the setting up of the Joint Working Group mechanism during the landmark visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988. Rajiv Gandhi was willing to give up India’s  earlier insistence for settlement of border problem as pre-condition for general improvement in the bilateral relations between the two countries. The next landmark Confidence Building Measure (CBM) between the two countries was the ‘Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC in the India-China Border Areas’ signed during the visit of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to China in December 1993 [1]. The agreement stipulated the following:

·        "The two sides are of the view that the India-China boundary question shall be resolved through peaceful and friendly consultations. Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other by any means.”

·        “Pending an ultimate solution to the boundary question between the two countries, the two sides shall strictly respect and observe the LAC between the two sides.”

·        “No activities of either side shall overstep the LAC. In case of a personnel of one side crossing the LAC, upon caution by the other side, they shall immediately pull back to their own side of the LAC.”

·        “When necessary, the two sides shall jointly check and determine the segments of the LAC where they have different views as to its alignment.”

It is clear from these provisions that the two countries are not only obliged to respect the status of the agreement, but also to observe the LAC which is undefined and un-demarcated. The respective LAC is based on mutual perception, at times leading to differing perceptions. The agreement, therefore, called upon both sides to work toward resolution of differences between the two sides on the alignment of the actual control. The two sides furthermore agreed that the references to the LAC did not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question.                                 

In spite of the CBMs and the mechanisms to prevent their occurrence, there have been instances of border incursions from time to time by both sides past the LAC. These border ingresses, however, have been sorted out amicably through available institutional mechanisms. The border incursion by the PLA of China on April 15, however, was unprecedented in its magnitude and duration.             

Strategic and security experts are at their wits’ end trying to determine the precise reasons for the border incursion by China, particularly during a scheduled state visit from the Chinese Premier. There is no consensus among experts whether it was an act of Chinese assertiveness or a move to test India’s resolve to protect its territory. Another explanation is that China’s actions were a manifestation of unease at heightened infrastructural development by India far too close to the Chinese border, including troop movements, the erection of new border outposts, reactivation of airstrips such as Daulat Beg Oldie and laying of border roads. Some even opine that the border ingress by China was an example of pressure tactics meant to expedite resolution of the border dispute from a position of strength.

Regardless of the reasoning behind the Chinese actions, the two countries handled the incident very deftly and in mature way. In New Delhi, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai summoned the Chinese Ambassador Wei Wei to South Block, the seat of Ministry of External Affairs, to lodge an official protest against the forward deployment (The Indian Express, April 23). Indian media reported that Mathai conveyed to the Chinese Ambassador that the posturing was unhelpful in building the right atmosphere before the visit of the Chinese Premier to India. New Delhi was courteous and yet firm in its articulation. Wei was told that India wanted the issue to be resolved soon, which meant that Chinese troops must pull back from their camping position. China, however, maintained that “the Chinese border defense troops always strictly abide by relevant agreements reached by the two governments and are committed to safeguarding to safeguarding peace and tranquility in the border area between China and India.” Beijing also denied that Chinese troops had trespassed on Indian territory and that it hoped to properly resolve the dispute through peaceful negotiations (China Daily, April 26). China’s soft attitude to the whole issue suggests that it was on the defensive and that it was amenable for a possible solution to defuse the stand off.                                

What seems to have accelerated the process of resolution of the impasse was the possibility that New Delhi might cancel the visit to Beijing of its foreign minister Salman Khurshid to prepare the field for the visit of the Premier Li Keqiang to New Delhi, which in turn would have cast shadow over the impending visit of the Chinese Premier to New Delhi. Against this background the army commanders of the two countries met for discussions at a number of Flag Meetings, the Working Mechanism on Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs of India headed by Joint Secretary Gautam Bambawale and his Chinese counterpart in Beijing. It is also believed that the Indian Ambassador to Beijing Mr. S. Jaishankar also was closeted with the Chinese Foreign Office to expedite a fast and early resolution of the border stand off. Finally, on May 5, after almost three weeks of standoff, the Chinese and Indian troops simultaneously withdrew from the disputed area paving the way for the visit of Mr. Khurshid to Beijing and the subsequent visit of the Chinese Premier to India. In a regular press briefing Chinese spokeswomen Hua Chunying said on May 6 that the two sides had maintained close communication and consultations on the issue through border related mechanisms, diplomatic channels and border defense meetings (Xinhua, May 6).                                  

After the end of the border standoff, India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid visited China. Pior to his visit to India, Premier Li also met a group of 100 Indian youths at Zhongnanhai, headquarters of the Chinese central government in Beijing on May 15. The two countries have begun the practice of exchanging youth delegations in last few years. He reached out to the Indian youth and mingled with them, sharing memories of his earlier visit to India 27 years ago as head of a Chinese youth organization. Li said “In a few days, I will make India the first stop of my first overseas visit as the premier of China. I’ve made this decision not just because India is an important neighbor and one of the most populous countries in the world, but also because of the seeds of friendship sown during my own youth” (China Daily, May 16).

Extending the charm offensive further, Li reached out to the Indian readers through an article, which appeared in his name in a prestigious English-language daily, where he reiterated his earlier visit to India (The Hindu, May 12). As expected, however, the April 15 border intrusion dominated his discussion with Prime Minister Singh on the very first day of his visit, when the Indian prime minister hosted a private dinner at his residence. Dr. Singh, both in the restricted and delegation-level talks as well as in his public statements, made it clear that peace and tranquility on the border is the “foundation” of the relationship. According to informed sources, Premier Li acknowledged and understood India’s position. Other important security issues, such as the effect of China’s growth on rivers with Chinese headwaters, also were discussed (Xinhua, May 20).                    

The ballooning trade deficit between the two countries was also discussed and according to sources, the Chinese side offered to give serious thought to opening Chinese markets to Indian products and services. India, however expressed its reservation about Chinese desire for a bilateral Regional Trade Agreement. It is interesting to note that China has been evincing keen interest to invest in modernization of India’s huge railway network, including the introduction of a high speed railway system. A close look at a similar Joint Statement with Japan suggests that Japan has a more favorable position and mentions that the two sides will co-finance a feasibility study of high-speed railway system on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route (Ministry of External Affairs [India], May 29).             


The fact that the two Prime Ministers could discuss difficult and uncomfortable issues candidly reflects a certain degree of resilience in the relationship between China and India. New Delhi conveyed to the visiting Chinese Premier that the relationship between the two countries can be put on a sustainable basis only in the context of mutual sensitivities to their respective core interests. Firstly, at the personal level the visit provided the Chinese Premier with an opportunity to establish rapport with Indian leaders including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The border incursion however reflected persistence of the security dilemma between the two countries. Secondly, unlike earlier incidents of border incursion, the Depsang Bulge incident reinforced the urgency and the imperatives for beefing up defense preparedness to face occurrence of any such instances. The news that the Government of India is now actively considering the Ministry of Defense’s proposal to raise 45,000 mountain strike troops at the cost of 810 billion rupees (approximately $13.6 billion) is further suggestive that the wake up call has been heard.

Thirdly, it is not difficult to fathom the implication of the incident on India’s foreign policy posture. Ever since India forged strategic partnership with Japan in 2006 it has been mindful of Chinese sensitivity. In recent times, however, there seems to be greater strategic partnership between India and Japan. Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso visited India on May 4 at the height of the border stand off between India and China and talked of convergence between “maritime democracies.” Later, Prime Minster Manmohan Singh , who could not visit Japan earlier last year due to dissolution of Japanese Parliament, visited Japan in late May. Significantly, the Joint Statement signed between the two countries “expressed their resolve to further consolidate and strengthen the Strategic and Global Partnership between India and Japan in the years ahead, taking into account changes in the strategic environment. As a new initiative the two Prime Ministers also launched the bilateral Maritime Affairs Dialogue. Yet on another front, India’s Defense Minister visited Australia, Singapore, and Thailand and India’s External Affairs Minister visited New Zealand While in Singapore the agreement to allow Singapore to train its forces at Indian Army establishments for an additional five years was renewed, in Thailand India’s Defense Minister A.K. Antony reiterated India’s support for freedom of navigation and emphasized on maritime security. Antony is also the first Indian Defense Minister to have visited Australia. In a calibrated approach, Antony will, however, visit China this month. Thus India is using a nuanced approach in its dealing with China. One thing is sure, New Delhi has neither the inclination, nor the capability to contain China. India might be able to choose its friends, but not its neighbor.


  1. Brahma Chellaney, Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan, New York: HarperCollins, 2006, pp. 298–300.