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Singh seeks to mend fences with Beijing

The Washington Post

Six months after a military standoff on their disputed border, the leaders of China and India signed a defense cooperation agreement last Wednesday to limit the risk of further confrontations.

But experts say it will be difficult for Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to make much progress on other key issues, such as the current trade imbalance, and concerns over Pakistan and regional security.

“The old dilemmas that bedevil India with respect to China are still intact,” said Ashley J. Tellis, an India expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “I don’t think either side is in a position right now to get to the heart of the matter.”

Singh’s swing through Russia and China this week, along with last month’s meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, is a farewell tour for the prime minister, who at 81 is seen as frail and ineffectual by his domestic critics as his second term wanes. India’s parliamentary elections are slated for the spring, and he is facing criticism from the opposition that he is being too soft on China.

Singh, a quiet economist, was the architect of many of the reforms that propelled India’s economy forward over the past two decades. But as the country’s growth has slowed and the government has become mired in corruption scandals, his popularity has plummeted.

“I think for Singh, this trip to Beijing is his legacy lap,” Tellis said. “There is a certain quality of nostalgia that is wrapped into this visit.”

Stopping in Russia on Monday, Singh met with President Vladimir Putin but a hoped-for agreement to build two more reactors for the Russian-backed nuclear power plant in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu never materialized, bogged down in liability concerns.

That leaves China.

In April, soldiers from China’s People’s Liberation Army set up a camp site not far from an Indian military base in the mountainous region of Ladakh in a disputed part of Kashmir.

Indian forces took up positions, resulting in a standoff that lasted for three weeks before the Chinese soldiers retreated.

“The relationship has been quite frosty this year because of the incursion that happened in Ladakh in April,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “I don’t think the relationship is sustainable. Unless the Chinese are willing to pursue a more balanced relationship, this turbulence will persist and intensify.”

The new agreement aims to avoid conflicts by setting up communication hot lines for senior officers and establishing stricter rules for troop behavior along the border, including a prohibition against “tailing” when a patrol from one country tails another after an encounter.

The two nuclear-armed powers have other long-standing political differences, including disputes over natural resources and China’s growing alliance with Pakistan. Still, the nations have increasingly strong economic ties. Bilateral trade rose to $66 billion last year, with hopes for $100 billion by 2015, officials have said. India would like to export more of its pharmaceutical products and information technology to China, but so far China’s appetite is for raw materials such as iron ore, resulting in a trade deficit of about $30 billion.

Singh said in an interview with Chinese media this week that the imbalance was “unsustainable” in the long term.

Chinese leaders have pledged more openness on the trade front, and they would like to be more involved in building needed infrastructure projects in India, according to Ye Hailin, a South Asian studies expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. But the Chinese government is awaiting the results of the spring election to see “whether these policies will stand,” Hailin said.

Tensions continue to flare between the countries over the more than 3,000 km of disputed border that stretch from the Indian-controlled territory of Kashmir in the north to the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China calls South Tibet.