By Y.P. Rajesh
NEW DELHI, November 22 - Chinese President Hu Jintao said on Wednesday Beijing was not seeking "selfish gains" in South Asia and was willing to work with New Delhi to push for an early settlement to a decades-old border dispute.
China was keen to enhance mutual political trust between the neighbours, consolidate business links and establish a strategic partnership to help make the 21st century an Asian century, the Chinese leader said.
The comments by Hu, the first Chinese president to visit India in a decade and the second ever, were seen as an attempt to reassure New Delhi over fears that Beijing was trying to encircle India and contain its rise.
"China does not seek any selfish gains in South Asia and is ready to play a constructive role in promoting peace and development in the subcontinent," Hu said in a speech to business leaders, diplomats and politicians.
"China also welcomes the improvement in relations between India and Pakistan," he said, referring to the South Asian rivals who are making slow progress in a peace process launched three years ago.
The speech came a day after the Chinese leader and Indian Prime Minster Manmohan Singh agreed to boost trade -- expected to touch $20 billion this year -- and renew efforts to solve the border dispute that is at the root of their mistrust.
Outside the heavily guarded convention centre, about a dozen Tibetan activists tried to break through police barricades and protest against Hu. They waved Tibetan flags and shouted anti-China slogans before they were detained by police.
Tibetan activists say more than 50 protesters had been detained since Monday, among hundreds who have demonstrated in New Delhi and other cities across India against what they call China's illegal occupation of Tibet.
Hu is due to travel to Islamabad -- an old friend of Beijing which strategic experts say has been used as a counterweight to New Delhi for decades -- on Thursday at the end of his four-day India visit.
He is expected to discuss a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with Pakistan, seen as a counterbalance to a landmark nuclear deal between India and the United States which is awaiting some final approvals by U.S. Congress.
China is also building a deep-water port on Pakistan's Arabian sea coast, as well as developing harbours or ports with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, as part of closer economic and military ties with India's neighbours -- all of which have led to suspicions over Beijing's motives.
But Hu said China and India were true friends and partners and Beijing was ready to work with New Delhi to increase mutual political trust. He added both needed to remove barriers to trade and investment.
An early settlement of the dispute over their Himalayan border would go a long way in contributing to peace and stability between the two countries, he said.
The two countries have made little progress in several rounds of negotiations over resolving the dispute over their 3,500 km (2,220 mile) border.
New Delhi disputes Beijing's rule over 38,000 sq km (15,000 square miles) of barren, icy and uninhabited land on the Tibetan plateau, which China seized from India in the 1962 war.
China, for its part, claims 90,000 sq km (35,000 square miles) of territory ruled by India in the eastern part of the border, mostly in Arunachal Pradesh state.
Although the two sides were seen to be working towards accepting the status quo and hammering out a swap deal, Beijing's apparent reluctance to give up claims over Arunachal Pradesh has blocked a solution, Indian officials say.
"The early settlement of the border issue ... is a shared wish of the two peoples," Hu said.
"China is ready to work with India ... in the overall interest of the two countries to actively seek a fair, just, mutually acceptable solution through friendly consultation on a equal footing."