China, India PMs to discuss border dispute, trade

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will hold talks with a string of Indian leaders on Monday as the two sides look to rebuild trust after a recent flare-up in a border dispute as well as boost trade.

Mr Li, who arrived in New Delhi on Sunday afternoon, has said that his decision to choose India for his first foreign visit since taking office "indicates the great importance Beijing attaches to its relations" with New Delhi.

India for its part has been keen to ensure that a spat over troop movements in a disputed Himalayan border region last month is not allowed to derail a general warming in ties between the world's two most populous countries.

After more informal talks between Mr Li and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh on Sunday night, the two premiers were due to hold more detailed discussions on Monday.

Mr Li is also scheduled to meet Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid and senior figures from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party before heading on Tuesday to the financial hub, Mumbai.

India's joint foreign secretary for East Asia, Gautam Bambawale, said at the weekend that "everything is on the table" for discussion with Li, including the border dispute in the remote Ladakh region which has been the subject of 15 rounds of high-level talks.

The row again flared last month after Delhi alleged Chinese troops intruded nearly 20km into Indian-claimed territory, triggering a three-week standoff which was resolved when troops from both sides pulled back.

The Line of Actual Control between the nuclear-armed neighbours has never been formally demarcated, although they have signed accords to maintain peace in the region which was the site of a brief Indo-Chinese war in 1962.

The dispute almost led Khurshid to cancel a visit to Beijing before the pullback agreement, despite his insistence that the row should not serve to "destroy" recent diplomatic progress.

Sujit Dutta, a China expert at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University, told AFP that the border dispute could "jeopardise the entire gamut of our relationship including trade ties".

But other observers said there is a general acceptance that the border dispute should not be allowed to block progress in other areas.

"The India-China border dispute is unlikely to be resolved any time soon but (Li's) visit... is likely to give impetus to bilateral and trade ties," said the Hindustan Times in a front-page article at the weekend.

China is India's second-largest trading partner, with two-way commerce totalling US$66.5 billion (S$83.6 billion) last year.

Chinese Vice-Commerce Minister Jiang Yaoping told reporters last week that he was optimistic that the target of reaching US$100 billion by 2015 would be met.

But the figure in 2012 was in fact a fall from the US$74 billion for 2011 and India is also facing an increasing trade deficit with China that totalled US$29 billion in 2012.

After wrapping up his visit to India, Mr Li is due to travel to neighbouring Pakistan before heading to Switzerland and Germany.