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India, China sign defense accord, but problems persist even as economic ties grow

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing October 23, 2013. (Reuters)

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

A day of talks in Beijing between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh resulted in small pacts on river cooperation and counter terrorism but made little inroads into the deeper issues dogging the two Asian powers, such as the trade deficit, concerns about 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 President 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 a Russian-backed nuclear power plant in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu never materialized, bogged down in concerns about liability.

That leaves China.

In April, Chinese soldiers set up a campsite 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, China and India 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 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 news 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, said Ye Hailin, a South Asia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. But the Chinese government is awaiting the results of the spring election in India to see “whether these policies will stand,” Hailin said.

Tensions continue to flare between the countries over the more than 2,000 miles of disputed border stretching from the Indian-
controlled territory of Kashmir in the north to the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China calls South Tibet.

China angered India this month when it gave “stapled” visas — issued on separate pieces of paper, rather than on the passports — to two archers from Arunachal Pradesh trying to get into China for a competition. In recent years, China has given these controversial stapled visas to Indian residents from areas that it thinks are in dispute, such as Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.

Li Qi and Jie Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.


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