India keeping up with the neighbor
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - China and India engaged in a heated war of words in October and
November, when India permitted the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang - territory in
India's northeast over which China lays claim. A little over a month later, the
two were coordinating their strategies at the Copenhagen climate summit,
signaling there are areas where they can join together.
Will conflict or cooperation define the Sino-Indian relationship in the coming
While obstacles strew the path to cooperation across the board, the fact that
China and India are rising powers in an interdependent world rules out the
possibility of all-out conflict. Relations in the past have been far from
interactions resulting from the 1962 war over their disputed frontier only
began to thaw in the 1980s.
Delhi and Beijing have come a long way since. The two have signed agreements to
maintain peace along their frontier and on guiding principles for current
negotiations to settle the dispute. Their armies have even engaged in joint
exercises on Chinese and Indian soil. Although tension along the Line of Actual
Control (LAC) erupts from time to time, the chances of all-out war have
Bilateral exchanges at the political, economic, military and cultural level
have developed to the extent that China and India can expect the coming decades
to be defined by a competitive-cooperative relationship.
Expanding trade ties have given the two sides a huge stake in keeping
co-operation alive. The value of trade between the nations is poised to reach
$60 billion in 2010, from $13.6 billion in 2004 and $338 million in 1992.
Cooperation between the two economies holds potential for creating what is
called ‘Chindia', the largest economic powerhouse in the world. As a senior
Chinese official once put it, "Chinese manufacturing plus Indian services,
Chinese hardware plus Indian software, will create an ideal win-win situation
for both countries."
While all this bodes well for a future that is cooperative, problems abound.
Trade is booming but tilted heavily in China's favor. While India exports raw
materials to China, value-added Chinese manufactured goods are flooding India.
For all the talk of collaboration in Information Technology, efforts have borne
little fruit. With India making forays into hardware and China into software,
both fear being dislodged by the other.
To expect the bilateral relationship to be cooperative when the border dispute
is still alive is unrealistic.
Tension on the border has eased, but has not gone away. After 13 rounds of
talks, the issue remains unresolved and the border has neither been demarcated
in maps nor delineated on the ground. Even as China recognized India's
sovereignty over the state of Sikkim in 2003, incursions still persist to this
Both sides continue to claim chunks of territory under the other's control.
India accuses China of occupying 38,000 square kilometers in Aksai Chin in the
northeastern corner of Jammu and Kashmir and of illegally holding 5,180 sq km
of land in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir that Pakistan ceded to China in 1963.
China lays claim to around 90,000 sq km of territory in India's northeast.
There is little reason to believe that the border dispute will be settled
anytime soon. It is widely believed in India that China is loath to resolve the
issue because that would enable Delhi to reduce military deployment along its
China frontier. An uncertain border keeps India under pressure, unsure over
China's moves. It provides China with enormous leverage it can exercise to
ensure good behavior from India. What is more, with the dispute so closely
linked to China's control over Tibet, a settlement will be complicated.
With the issue unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, tension along the frontier
will persist. A fuzzy frontier provides room for incursion, which carries the
potential of escalating into military confrontation.
Several other obstacles stand in the way of China and India engaging in real
cooperation, the most important being their similar ambitions. Both see
themselves as great civilizations and share a sense of having been denied their
rightful place in the world order that they are determined to correct.
Delhi feels that China is uneasy with India’s growing stature and that this
manifests in Beijing seeking to deny India a permanent seat on the UN Security
Council and a place in regional forums like the East Asia Summit and the
Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC). China last year also sought to block a
consensus from emerging in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) over the lifting
of restrictions on global nuclear trade with India.
Each resents the other entering what they believe are spheres of influence.
India is therefore suspicious of China's entry into South Asia and the Indian
Ocean and its cultivation of a deeper relationship with its neighbors through
economic and military aid. Many in India feel China is trying to encircle it.
On its part, Beijing resents India hobnobbing with its neighbors such as
Vietnam and Japan. India's joint naval exercises with Japan and the US off the
Japanese coast in April, 2007 and widening to include Singapore and Australia
in the Bay of Bengal five months later raised hackles in China, as did the
India, Japan, US and Australia effort to form a "Quadrilateral of Democracies".
Perceived intrusions are inevitable given the overlap in the areas over which
the two have historically played roles and continue to regard as their own
spheres of influence.
"Chinese policymakers' preference for a balance-of-power approach in interstate
relations has led them to provide military and political support to those
countries that can serve as counterweights to Beijing's perceived enemies and
rivals," J. Mohan Malik, an expert on Sino-Indian relations, has argued. This
has pushed China to cultivate closer ties with Pakistan and provide economic
and military aid, especially nuclear and missile technology. China's robust
support to Pakistan is aimed at containing India.
Just as China's ties with Pakistan irk India, so Delhi's growing closeness with
the Americans worries the Chinese. Chinese analysts see the US courting of
India as aimed at containing China.
It is not just in their immediate neighborhood that China and India tread on
each other's toes. They do so in Africa and South America, hunting for energy
to fuel economic growth. Competition for oil will increase in the coming
decades as their thirst for oil grows.
There have been attempts to work together in the field of energy. In 2005, for
instance, China and India, along with Japan, were among nations that tried to
create a loose Organization for Oil Importing Countries to enable Asian powers
to cut better price deals with oil producers. But such efforts have proved
If territorial tensions scarred the Sino-Indian relationship in the 20th
century, maritime rivalry could color their relationship in the present one.
"Perhaps the most visible realm of aggressive Chinese and Indian rivalry would
be in the maritime space of the Indian Ocean as India builds its naval
capabilities and China determinedly invests in access and basing in the
region,” maritime security expert Lawrence Prabhakar, told Asia Times Online.
"This is compounded by the fact that China is investing in land attack cruise
missiles with nuclear payloads with their Shang class Type 93 attack submarines
cruising into this region; establishing a level of interoperability with the
And yet the future is unlikely to be defined by conflict alone. "While
divergence on bilateral political and strategic issues seems inevitable and
competition in their regional backyards likely to continue, as rising powers in
an interdependent world India and China have reason to cooperate on economic
and environmental issues," Prabhakar said.
Economic interdependence and, ironically, the build up of competitive strategic
capabilities are the basis for strengthening the relationship, according to
Prabhakar. India's nuclear and strategic assets and conventional military
capabilities buoyed by economic growth creates interdependence on one hand,
``while checking Chinese aggression on the other," he said.
It is inevitable for rising giants, especially neighbors that expansion rubs up
against each other. But the cost of conflict and realization that they need
peace to stay on high-growth trajectories should compel them to focus on areas
of convergence. India and China will come to terms with each other. But it will
be a couple of decades at least before they do so.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in