China cultivates India ties amid tension with neighbors

BEIJING — Amid fierce disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, China is reaching out to India in a warming trend that could help ramp up economic exchanges and dissipate decades of distrust between the two giant neighbors.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was conspicuous in being the first foreign leader to call Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi following Modi’s swearing-in last month. The next day, Li dispatched his top foreign policy adviser to tell India’s ambassador that China wanted to boost cooperation in all areas.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Modi in New Delhi to affirm that past differences between the countries should not affect their current relations.


The potential for India-China ties is ‘‘just like the emerging tip of a massive buried treasure that awaits your discovery,’’ Wang was quoted as saying in an interview with India’s The Hindu newspaper.

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Relations between the sides had long been strained amid India’s worries about Beijing’s rising strength and a decades-old dispute over their shared 4,000-mile Himalayan border that triggered a brief war in 1962. Modi talked tough while campaigning, saying India did not want a war with China but would be prepared to deal with any threats.

However, after leading his party to a landslide victory on economic promises, Modi surprised many in India by immediately reaching out to neighboring Asian countries, including traditional archrival — and close Chinese ally — Pakistan.

Beijing, too, has many reasons to draw nearer to India, especially as chief rival the United States seeks to strengthen its relationships in Asia after the distractions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Huang Jing, a China expert at Singapore National University’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

‘‘India carries great strategic value for China, so its bottom line is to not push India over to the US,’’ Huang said. ‘‘China wants India, at the very least, to stay neutral.’’


Strong relations with India make all the more sense given the tensions roiling China’s ties to its south and east, all of which have affected high-level diplomatic and, in some cases, economic relations. China believes those countries have been emboldened by the US rebalancing, or pivot, to Asia, as part of what Beijing considers a Washington-led campaign to encircle China and constrain its rise.

Chinese and Vietnamese ships have clashed repeatedly in the South China Sea since Beijing moved an oil rig into waters claimed by Hanoi on May 1. Anti-Chinese protests last month turned violent, with hundreds of factories looted and burned, four Chinese killed, and more than 300 injured. China and the Philippines are embroiled in a similar dispute.

China has also revived its dispute with Japan over territory and Tokyo’s World War II invasion. Beijing has suspended most government-to-government exchanges with Tokyo and Chinese patrol boats routinely confront Japanese craft in waters surrounding uninhabited East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China.