China and India: Looking to the future

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao flies down to India today to meet his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, the entire world will be eagerly awaiting the outcome of the meeting between the leaders of these two Asian giants. India lately has seen a succession of visits by international leaders. While American President Barack Obama visited India in the first week of November, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was in Delhi between December 4-7 and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s India visit is scheduled to begin from December 21.

While various observers have touted the 21st century as the Asian century, it will depend to a great extent on how India-China relations play out. There are a number of factors which will determine how India and China conduct their relations with each other.

First, the post-Cold war era has seen India move increasingly closer to the US which has rubbed the Chinese the wrong way. Indeed President Obama’s stopover in India during his recent tour of the Asian democracies, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea signals the importance of India in the American strategic calculations and the emerging world order and China has to take note of this reality.

Second, China is adopting an increasingly aggressive posture in Asia. The recent spat with Japan near the disputed Senkaku islands only goes to show the rising aggressiveness of China. The rising tensions in the Korean peninsula have only added fuel to the fire. It is worth mentioning that China had refused to haul up the reclusive Hermit Kingdom over the sinking of a South Korean naval ship, Cheonan earlier in March this year.

Third, as India and China continue on their growth paths, there are bound to be tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. Already, there is a great deal of distrust in the mutual ties since China claims the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Even when the Indian Prime Minister and President have visited Arunachal Pradesh, China has raised “objections”. The 2,520-mile frontier between India and China is the only one of China’s land borders that has not been demarcated.

Fourth, during the recent visit of the American President Barack Obama to India, he offered America’s support to India’s quest for a permanent seat in the UNSC(United Nations Security Council), an issue on which Beijing has refused to come out in India’s support.

However, this is not to suggest that the relations are only a story of mistrust.
There are many areas where India and China have been cooperating with each other.

First, trade is obviously an important aspect of the India-China relation. China is India’s second largest trading partner. The total bilateral trade between India and China in 2009-10 was worth US$ 42.44 billion. Recently, India’s Reliance ADAG( Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group) has signed a contract worth $8.3 billion with China’s Shanghai Electric Co Ltd (SEC) for buying 36 coal-fired thermal power generation units, spare parts and assorted services.

Second, India and China are cooperating in international forums like BRIC(Brazil, Russia, India and China) and in the field of climate change negotiations. The December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change summit saw unprecedented cooperation between India and China, which has been dubbed as the “Copenhagen spirit”. During the subsequent visit of the Indian President Pratibha Patil to China in May 2010, she and the Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to continue the camaraderie that had been forged at Copenhagen in other international forums.

Third, the two countries have common interests in countries like Afghanistan and in the fight against terrorism. While India is worried about the spillover effect of the reemergence of Taliban in Afghanistan particularly for its province of Jammu and Kashmir, China is worried about the unrest in Xinjiang given its proximity to Afghanistan.

Fourth, India and China can cooperate instead of fighting it out in regions like Southeast Asia. Both India and China have had historical influences on the Southeast Asian countries and can therefore jointly benefit from the same. In countries like Singapore and Malaysia, there are huge Chinese and Indian Diasporas and naturally it is in the interest of both India and China to cooperate in this region.

However, there a few areas where the two countries need to pull up their socks.

First is of course people-to-people ties. While the two countries are neighbours, very few Indians actually travel to China and vice-versa. This has got to change and tourism could be a major revenue earner for both the countries. Chinese tourists would be interested in Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. During the Indian President’s visit to China earlier this year, she dedicated an Indian style Buddhist Temple in Luoyang, China.

Second, the two countries could think of developing road links to increase trade. Although a World-War II era road, the Stilwell Road exists between India’s Northeast to Kunming in China through Myanmar, this has been lying unused. This road could be reopened, which will also spur the development of India’s backward Northeast. Though, there is a danger of Chinese goods and illegal weapons flooding Indian markets, this could be checked by putting up proper security mechanisms.

Third, it is very important to settle the vexed boundary question so that the trust deficit between the two countries could be bridged.

India and China are civilizations that have existed in peace for thousands of years except for the border war of 1962. Though there still exists a mistrust of China in India because of the 1962 war, it is important to leave the past behind and move into the future. The total population of these two countries is nearly 2.6 billion or nearly 40 per cent of the world’s total. India and China are on the cusp of changing the dynamics of world politics, but for that to happen, peace between them is a sine qua non.

Rupakjyoti Borah

Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, India. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, U.K. in 2009 and an Australia-India Council Australian Studies Fellow. The views expressed are personal.

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