Manmohan in cold Beijing, with determination to warm ties

By Tarun Basu, IANS

Beijing : Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived here at the crack of dawn Sunday for his maiden governmental visit to China, the sub-zero temperature no deterrent to his determination to intensify the growing warmth in the relationship and reduce the “trust deficit” between two of the oldest civilisations that account for two-fifth of the global population.

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Manmohan Singh, who is accompanied by his wife Gursharan Kaur, Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, and a 20-member business delegation, plunged into the first engagement of his trip within a few hours of arrival by visiting the Beijing Olympic Centre and going round its facilities as the city prepares to host the Olympics in seven months.

“I hope that the Olympic spirit and the traditional hospitality and warmth of the great city of Beijing will promote friendship, peace and understanding among all the participants, and the countries they represent,” Manmohan Singh wrote in the Visitors’ Book at the Centre.

Thereafter, he is scheduled to attend a private dinner with his counterpart Wen Jiabao at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a picturesque villa built over 800 years ago that serves as the setting for official banquets and other state occasions.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Qin Gang in a lunch interaction with the visiting Indian media said the visit would promote “peace, development and strategic partnership” between the two countries.

“When Manmohan Singh shakes hands with Wen Jiabao, it will catch the eye of the world,” he said, emphasising the importance of the two countries to be good neighbours, friends and partners and not be seen as “rivals or enemies” as many would want them to be.

Manmohan Singh will be welcomed ceremonially at the Great Hall of the People only Monday afternoon before his formal talks with Wen and then on Tuesday with President Hu Jintao.

But in a measure of the importance that business plays in today’s diplomatic discourse – particularly in the one between emerging economic powers India and China – he is addressing the India-China Economic, Trade and Investment Cooperation Summit even before the official welcome ceremony.

A 20-member Indian business delegation is here in Beijing to push for greater trade and investment with China as the two Asian giants push for more economic engagement despite sluggish progress in resolution of their five decade old border dispute.

Among the big names in the delegation are Naresh Goyal of Jet Airways, media and entertainment baron Subhash Chandra, telecom tsar Sunil Bharti Mittal, who is also president of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Vinod Mittal of Ispat Industries and H.F. Khorakiwala, chairperson of pharma major Wockhardt who is also president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

The delegation is meeting Manmohan Singh Sunday afternoon to apprise him of the “mood of Indian CEOs” and the problems they face in doing business here ahead of his meetings with Chinese leaders.

Manmohan Singh will speak Tuesday at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences about the Indian experience of blending economic growth and social equity.

Not so long ago, trade and investment between the two countries – which fought a brief but bitter border war in 1962 – were hardly anything to cheer about. Now, economic ties are blooming. Bilateral trade from January to November 2007 topped $38 billion, a year-on-year increase of 54 percent.

If it continues at this pace, bilateral trade will cross $40 billion much before 2010 – the target set by the two countries during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India.

The weekend China Daily, which calls itself the “the national English language newspaper” and like other Chinese media is under state control, had three stories on India in its weekend edition – a signpost of the importance the government here is giving to “first foreign head of government visit” to China this year.

Other than a six-column curtainraiser in which experts from both countries are quoted as saying that the visit would help maintain “momentum of high-level contacts” and reduce the “trust deficit” but is not expected to produce any “major breakthroughs” on the border dispute, the paper has a front page story on the completion of an “Indian hall” in the 1,900 year old White Horse Temple – China’s first Buddhist temple – in Luoyang almost 20 centuries after Buddhism came to this country from India.

There is also an article on Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), whose officials are quoted as saying that they came to China hoping to make it a hub for their international business. The Chinese have a great admiration for Indian software prowess and the leaps made in the knowledge economy and the Chinese media frequently map the fortunes of India’s top software firms, both stationed here and in Bangalore.