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China seeks to mend ties with India amid wider diplomatic tensions

NEW DELHI -- No sooner had the new Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi come into office at the end of May than China started making moves to improve ties.

     Beijing managed to set up a telephone conference between Premier Li Keqiang and Modi and arrange for China's foreign minister to visit India.

     As a result, Li became the fist top foreign government official to speak to Modi after being inaugurated.

     During their 40-minute telephone conversation, held immediately after Modi was sworn in, Li told Modi that China has a strong desire to build solid bilateral relations with India. Modi responded by requesting that Chinese President Xi Jinping visit India.

     On June 8, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited New Delhi as Xi's special envoy on a mission to set a positive tone for China's relationship with the new Indian government. Wang met with his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj.

     The international community is closely watching developments in India, and China is keen to have close working relations with India, Wang told Swaraj.

    Wang was the first foreign minister of any major country to visit India after the Modi government was launched.

     During his stay in India, Wang also paid a courtesy call to Modi. During their brief meeting, Wang flattered the Modi government, saying its arrival in New Delhi "breathed new life into the ancient civilization."

     Modi accepted Wang's request for his early visit to China. They agreed on expansion of trade and investment between the two countries and also on the promotion of bilateral cooperation in anti-terrorism efforts.

All the right moves

Behind China's rush to put its relations with India on a better standing is its bitter territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas.

     With its ties with some neighboring countries, including Japan and Vietnam, deeply strained, China is under pressure to prevent its relations with India from deteriorating further. The relations between the two emerging giants, which still suffer from lingering suspicions dating from a 1962 border clash, worsened last year when Chinese troops crossed into an area in the Himalayan region of Ladakh that was on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, and stayed put for about a month despite protests from India.

     China sees the arrival of the Modi government as a superb opportunity to heal the rift in the bilateral relationship created during the previous Indian government, says a researcher at the Center for Policy Research, a leading Indian think tank.

     As tensions are growing in its relations with Tokyo and Hanoi due to territorial rows, Beijing has apparently decided to avoid any friction with New Delhi, at least for the time being, to focus its diplomatic resources on maritime issues.

     China's overture is too tempting to resist for the Modi government, which puts the top policy priority on the development of the country's manufacturing sector. India desperately needs Chinese investment to revitalize its faltering economy.

     During their June 8 talks, the foreign ministers of the two countries discussed India's proposal to build an industrial park for exclusive use by Chinese companies. The industrial park is actually designed as a special economic zone that offers tax incentives for companies that start operations there, such as a lower sales tax rate. India hopes the park will help attract more Chinese investments.

     In early June, a mission of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government-affiliated think tank, visited India. The mission made an inspection tour to examine roads, ports and other components of urban development infrastructure and petrochemical facilities in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where Modi promoted economic development as its chief minister.

     Modi suddenly canceled his scheduled early July visit to Japan, but intends to be at the summit of the BRICS major emerging countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- to be held in Brazil in mid-July.

     During his election campaign, Modi roundly criticized China for its "expansionary mindset." 

     How will he respond to Beijing's charm offensive? The international community will closely watch his first meeting with Xi.

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