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PM Singh to take up border dispute during China visit

January 11, 2008

Ravi Velloor, India Bureau Chief
8 January 2008
Straits Times

New Delhi will also assuage Beijing's fears on its growing closeness to US

NEW DELHI - INDIAN Prime Minister Manmohan Singh begins a crucial trip
to China over the coming weekend, seeking to push stalled border talks
and assuage Beijing's worries over New Delhi's growing closeness to the
United States.

The Jan 13-15 visit is the first to China by an Indian prime minister
since Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled there in 2003.

That visit produced agreements on Tibet and Sikkim, issues of concern to
China and India respectively, and led to the flowering of trade ties.

Last year, bilateral trade topped US$30 billion (S$45 billion). Two-way
trade is now projected to cross US$40 billion before the targeted 2010
date.

However, while trade and economic ties are accelerating, the two Asian
giants have had far less success in moving forward on the key issue that
divides them - a boundary dispute that dates back almost five decades.

India says China is occupying 38,000 sq km of its territory in Kashmir
illegally ceded to it by Pakistan. Beijing, in turn, claims 90,000 sq km
of land in the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is
next to Bhutan.

Senior Indian paramilitary officials have complained recently about
Chinese incursions along the unsettled border, although the Foreign
Office has been far more circumspect about voicing its concern.

Indian analysts say PM Singh's trip, planned for months, comes at a
particularly inopportune time for him and the ruling Congress Party.

The government's communist backers have stymied a landmark civilian
nuclear deal with the United States that had given the Singh government
tremendous political currency abroad but had raised concern in Beijing.

Worse, a string of election defeats in key northern Indian states have
weakened the government and turned it into a lame-duck administration.

'The visit is taking place at a very difficult time, especially because
China has hardened its position on the territorial dispute,' said
analyst Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research, a New
Delhi-based think-tank.

Still, to create a more conducive environment for the visit, a hundred
Indian troops flew last month to China's Yunnan province for their first
joint military exercise.

A 'very, very positive' bilateral meeting in Singapore in November
between PM Singh and his Chinese counterpart, Premier Wen Jiabao, has
also helped matters.

Indeed, some of the atmospherics for that meeting had been set by the
warm reception given by Beijing in October to visiting Congress Party
president Sonia Gandhi and her son, first-time MP Rahul Gandhi.

Last month, China replaced its envoy to New Delhi. Former ambassador Sun
Yuxi was seen as having spoilt the atmosphere for President Hu Jintao's
November 2006 visit to India by insisting that all of Arunachal Pradesh
was Chinese territory.

During the upcoming visit, PM Singh may also seek unequivocal Chinese
support for India to be allowed back into the global trade in civilian
nuclear technology and fuel.

China is a key member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which must
endorse the India-specific safeguards that New Delhi is currently
negotiating with the International Atomic Energy Agency to make the
Indo-American deal operational.

In turn, India may signal some sort of willingness to eventually
consider a free trade accord with China, which it does not recognise as
a market economy.

'In Singapore, China hinted clearly to us that it may be interested in
investing in India's nuclear power programme once the NSG clearance is
in place,' a senior Indian official said.

velloor@sph.com.sg
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