Xi Jinping’s India visit can’t have a clear balance sheet because a major item is confounding

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By the statements made in New Delhi this afternoon, India and China are set to conclude a successful meeting between prime minister Narendra Modi and president Xi Jinping.

But transgressions at the border that necessitated flag meetings between the two armies even as summit level meetings took place highlighted the big outstanding issue between India and China, who have gone to war once—the contentious boundary.

The two countries signed new agreements that will doubtless bring the Asian giants closer. Yet China’s border policy, and its confounding execution, makes it very hard for India to take assurances from the highest levels in China seriously.

The intention to peacefully settle the border issue, which Xi articulated today, has been stated before.

For instance, when Chinese premiere Li Keqiang visited Delhi in May last year—shortly after Indian and Chinese troops faced off in Ladakh, where a similar standoff is currently ongoing—the vexed issue of the border dispute was seen as central to bilateral relations. “The basis for continued growth and expansion of our ties is peace and tranquility on our borders,” the then Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh said, after meeting Li.

In his own statement, the Chinese premiere further mentioned: “Pending the resolution of the boundary question, the two sides shall work together to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas in line with the previous agreements.”

But the reality is that “transgressions”—as the government terms them—along the India-China border have significant increased in recent years.

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“Based on the seven-month data the Home ministry provided for 2014 (through August 4), Chinese transgressions appear well on track to substantially exceed the 400-plus levels of the previous two years,” Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Alyssa Ayres wrote earlier this week.

“It’s hard to reconcile this pattern with the economic cooperation messaging happening in parallel,” she added.

After their meeting today, Modi and Xi, too, reiterated the importance of the border dispute.

“I raised our serious concern over repeated incidents along the border,” Modi said. “We agreed that peace and tranquility in the border region constitutes an essential foundation for mutual trust and confidence and for realizing the full potential of our relationship.”

Xi said that since the border was yet to be demarcated, sometimes there were “certain incidents”, although both sides had been able to manage these situations. He added that China was keen to “settle the boundary question at an early date”, and would maintain peace till that happened.

But even as Modi and Xi met in Delhi, “soldiers from both sides had faced off on the Ladakh plateau for over a week in a dispute about infrastructure works”, Reuters reported. There is, though, an element of confusion in the incursions, or “transgressions”. Since certain parts of the border between India and China have never been agreed upon, both countries claim some parts to be theirs. So when India alleges a transgression, it is based on the boundary India claims and China does not recognize, and vice versa.

Still, why Xi, despite being the commander of the Chinese military, couldn’t create a more amicable atmosphere for his India visit visit is puzzling.

But China is known to be assertive in territorial disputes, talks not withstanding. In the South China Sea dispute, too, with members of the 10-nation ASEAN group, China has behaved similarly. In May this year, only days before the 2014 ASEAN Summit in Myanmar, China moved a giant oil-rig accompanied by some 80 ships into disputed waters.

India and China can’t move much farther ahead without progress on the border dispute. But there are also some unambiguously good deals that have emerged from the Chinese leader’s visit to India. Here are five key pacts that were signed today.

China to invest $20 billion in India 

The two countries have announced a five-year trade plan. China will invest $20 billion in India to help deflate India’s largest trade deficit with any single country. As Quartz had written earlier, even though China is India’s largest trading partner, its needs for Indian goods has diminished over the years. Earlier in the month, Japan had pledged to invest $35 billion in india.

China to open new route for Indian pilgrims

Kailash Mansarovar Yatra is a popular religious pilgrimage to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar in Tibet. The journey is undertaken by followers of many religions and is known for its uneven terrain and harsh conditions. President Xi Jinping has agreed to open a safer route for Indian travellers. The new route would be through Nathu La, the Himalayan pass linking the two countries. This will be in addition to the existing route through Uttarakhand.

“The new route offers many benefits. It makes Kailash Mansarovar accessible by a motorable road, which is especially beneficial to the older pilgrims,” said Modi, while thanking his Chinese counterpart for the gesture.

A railway university in India

The two most populous countries have signed a pact to help India upgrade its railway infrastructure. India has the world’s fourth-longest rail network, but most of it is a legacy of its colonial past. Since independence in 1947, India has added only 11,000 km of track. On the other hand, China has added 14,000 km of track from 2007 to 2011.

Some of the steps that the two nations have agreed upon are: redevelopment of railway stations, setting up of a Railway University in India, training of Indian Railway personnel.

Chinese industrial parks

The Chinese will set up two industrial parks in India, one focusing on power equipment and another for automobile components. These will be established in Gujarat and Pune.

Civil nuclear cooperation

“We will begin the process of discussions on civil nuclear energy cooperation that will bolster our broader cooperation on energy security,” Modi said in Delhi today. No other details were shared with journalists.

The BJP-led government appears keen to broaden India’s nuclear energy sector. Last week it signed a nuclear deal with Australian prime minister Tony Abbott; the deal will provide India access to Australia’s large stocks of uranium.