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For Modi, it’s China border dispute that’s key
Signal of shift in Beijing diplomacy

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff welcomes Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, on Tuesday. (AFP)

New Delhi, July 15: Prime Minister Narendra Modi today indicated to Chinese President Xi Jinping that he intends to focus on resolving the border dispute as a key component of ties between the neighbours, signalling a subtle shift from the approach his predecessors have followed for over two decades.

India and China have since the late 1980s adopted a policy of keeping their economic relationship at the forefront of ties, acknowledging that any progress on their boundary dispute may take years, even decades.

Although Xi had told former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last year that India and China should expedite the boundary resolution process, New Delhi remained more concerned about its unbalanced trade relationship with an economically dominant Beijing.

But Modi, at his first meeting with Xi on the margins of a summit of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa grouping widely known as the BRICS, hinted that he wanted the neighbours to focus on finding a resolution to the border dispute.

“He said there was a need to find a solution to the boundary question and maintenance of peace and tranquillity on the border was essential even while both India and China work towards resolving the boundary question,” foreign ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said in Brazil’s Fortaleza, the venue of the BRICS summit and where Modi and Xi met.

Modi told Xi that “if India and China could amicably resolve the boundary question, it would set an example for the entire world, on peaceful conflict resolution,” a separate statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Xi, Indian officials said, accepted India’s concerns over their trade relationship — heavily dependent on Indian imports from China — and agreed to work towards facilitating an increase in Chinese investments in India. China and India had signed an agreement earlier this month to set up industrial parks in India exclusively for Chinese companies.

The Chinese President invited Modi to a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping of 21 Pacific rim countries, which Beijing is hosting this November. India is not a member of the grouping and has never previously been represented at a meeting by the Prime Minister.

Xi also invited India to join China as a founding member of a rival to the Asian Development Bank that the Chinese President had proposed last September.

But it was Modi’s statements to Xi on the boundary dispute which officials said stood out in a conversation that was initially scheduled for 40 minutes but extended to 80 minutes. “It was a really frank first conversation,” a senior official said. “There was no mincing of words and that’s why what was said is so important.”

The border dispute, rooted in arbitrary, colonial-era maps that the two nations disagree on, spiralled into the 1962 war that has come to represent the biggest humiliation in India’s modern military history.

But when, in 1979, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping unleashed the economic reforms that have since pulled over 600 million Chinese out of poverty and made the country the world’s second-largest economy, he also unveiled a shift from the foreign policy strategy Beijing had till then followed.

Deng argued that China needed to focus on its economic growth, for which it could not afford wars or military tension with neighbours. “Our generation lacks wisdom. But a future generation will have wisdom,” Deng had famously said, suggesting that the diplomatic focus on territorial disputes needed to be shelved.

His initial argument had been made in the context of Hong Kong (then a British colony and a constant reminder in China’s psyche of the humiliation Britain had heaped upon it), Taiwan (which Beijing insists belongs to it) and Japan.

But in 1988, Deng repeated the position to Rajiv Gandhi at their famous meeting in Beijing that ended more than two decades of diplomatic freeze following the 1962 war.

Xi’s comment to Singh last year at the BRICS summit in Durban triggered feverish diplomatic speculation the Chinese President was hinting that the leadership transition that brought him to power some months earlier had effectively installed the “future generation” with the “wisdom” Deng had spoken about.

Modi’s statement to Xi today may well attract a similar response.