India, China set up hotline to ease border dispute

India, China ended four days of high-level talks in Beijing on Thursday with an agreement to set up a hotline between prime ministers, to better avoid flare-ups over a longstanding border dispute.

China Daily/Reuters
China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (r.) shakes hands with his Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna at Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing Wednesday. Krishna said here Tuesday that a strong and stable relationship between India and China has an impact on the entire world.

Only months after reported border incursions sparked anger across the Himalayas, India and China sought to strengthen diplomatic ties during “cordial” four-day talks in Beijing which ended Thursday.

Perhaps the most constructive outcome of the meeting – the highest-level visit from India since Indian elections a year ago – was the agreement to set up a hot line between their prime ministers. This would allow them to connect more easily and reduce the likelihood of flare-ups over long-running disputes.

"These have been cordial, useful, constructive, and wide-ranging discussions," India’s foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, told reporters at a press conference in Beijing Wednesday. "The agreement to establish a hot line is an important confidence-building measure and it opens up a direct channel of communication between the two leaders."

But in a reminder of lingering distrust, the talks came amid a new report claiming that a Chinese cyberspying group stole documents from the Indian Defense Ministry and e-mails from the office of the Dalai Lama, who is considered an enemy by China and lives in exile in India.

The two sides did not discuss the report, according to India, but are thought to have discussed a range of other topics, from China’s involvement in Pakistan to currency exchange rates and passport rules with Chinese officials.

A ‘new phase’

Tensions between the two nations flared last year over the north Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders Tibet and Bhutan and part of which is claimed by China. This area, which China calls South Tibet, includes an important Buddhist monastery in Tawang, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama in the 17th century.

China was livid when the Dalai Lama visited the state last November. India, meanwhile, was riled by almost daily reports of border incursions by China

But in a meeting with Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said the relationship had reached a "new phase of mature and stable development."

"History shows that friendship between neighbors and common development are in the interests of both countries, of Asia and of the world," said Mr. Wen.

Professor Alka Acharya, professor of East Asia studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says that the leaders wanted to use this week's meetings to signal to Asia and the world “that they are serious about taking this relationship forward ... that this is a critical relationship.”

Relations between India and China – the world's two most populous nations – were improved, say analysts, by December's climate conference in Copenhagen, where the biggest and fourth-biggest emitters pulled together to work out a deal, which many developed countries criticized as inadequate.

Ms. Acharya says the nations’ handling of last year’s border flare-up also had a calming effect. “Despite the media uproar, there was a very mature and calm handling of that phase, with statement from both sides stressing the importance of keeping things on an even keel.”

A meeting between the foreign ministers of India, China, and Russia in Bangalore in October – in which the three stressed that the international community must remain committed to stability in Afghanistan – also encouraged a constructive element to relations, she says.

$60 billion in trade

Indeed, both India and China have a lot to gain from increased cooperation, particularly in cross-border trade.

Trade between the Asian giants, which are both making a speedy recovery from the global financial crisis, is expected to top $60 billion this year, up from $260 million in 1990.

This is heavily skewed in China’s favor, to the tune of some $16 billion, and both countries have acknowledged the need to even out trade flows with some sort of bilateral agreement.

In particular, India, a country now awash with Chinese goods, wants China to open up its markets to Indian products and services in sectors from information technology to culture.

“In the past few years Indians have been learning to cope and deal with China’s “assertiveness” and its unfriendly face,” wrote Sanjaya Baru, editor of the Business Standard newspaper, in a recent editorial.

“In the next few years they may well find dealing with China’s friendly face equally challenging.”

Mistrust remains

Besides the Arunachal issue, territorial anxieties are also aroused over China’s involvement in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir – which is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed in its entirety by both – and its alliance with Pakistan.

India is also suspicious of China’s growing military clout. These suspicions are unlikely to be allayed by the news about cyberspying aired on Tuesday. The report, by researchers from the University of Toronto, said the spies, who used online services including Google and Twitter to hack into computers, may have passed information on to branches of the Chinese government. They said they found no hard evidence to make this link.

Another bone of contention is China’s refusal to stamp passports from Indian-controlled Kashmir. In recent years, Kashmiri visitors to China have received a separate visa page stapled into their passport. This is effectively useless for direct India-China travel because authorities at Indian airports do not recognize visas without stamps.

In late March, a China-bound professor from Kashmir University was surprised to find his visa had been stamped. But it remains unclear whether this represented a change in policy or a mistake.

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