NEW DELHI — Managed competition is likely to define the relationship between the two demographic titans, India and China, in the years ahead, even as they seek to expand bilateral cooperation.
During Chinese President Hu Jintao’s November visit to India, the underlying wariness or even suspicion of each other’s intentions was hardly absent. Yet both sides felt the need to publicly play down the competitive dynamics of their relationship and emphasize cooperation.
The visit, although low in substance, yielded a rhetoric-laden joint statement with nice jingles, such as “all-round mutually beneficial cooperation.” At a time when Beijing has not hidden its unease about the larger strategic implications of the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, the statement promised the two sides would “promote cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, consistent with their respective international commitments” — a symbolic commitment unlikely to translate into action.
It makes sense for India to stress cooperation while working to narrow the power disparity with China and build greater stability and equilibrium in Asia through strategic ties with other democracies, including the United States and Japan. To China, an accent on cooperation dovetails with its larger strategy to advertise its “peaceful rise.” China’s strategy has been built around a theme: Its emergence as a great power is unstoppable, and it is thus incumbent on other nations to adjust to that rise.
Still, the strained and fragile nature of relations between the two Asian giants was exposed on the eve of Mr. Hu’s visit by the Chinese ambassador’s bellicose claim in public that the entire northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh belongs to China. This compelled Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to respond that “every inch of Arunachal Pradesh is part of India.” With Mr. Hu by his side, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave vent to India’s disquiet over the slow progress of the 25-year-old border negotiations with China by calling for efforts to settle the “outstanding issues in a focused, sincere and problem-solving manner.”
The two countries are locked in what some consider the longest and most-barren negotiating process between any two countries in modern world history. By urging that improvement in bilateral ties be made “irreversible,” Mr. Singh pointed to the danger that blunt assertion of territorial claims or other belligerent actions could undo the gains.
It is true that India and China have a mutual stake in maintaining the peaceful diplomatic environment on which their continued economic modernization and security depend. Despite Beijing’s reluctance to fully define the military line separating the Chinese and Indian armies, the Himalayan border remains peaceful.
Yet there is no congruence on geopolitical issues. That is why the proclaimed “India-China strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity” remains devoid of content. The two sides can only showcase their fast-growing trade, which has risen to almost $20 billion this year from just $260 million in 1990.
But Japan and China, with 10 times higher trade volume, are discovering that when strategic animosities remain untreated, interdependent commercial ties do not guarantee moderation. Similarly, Japan and South Korea, with bilateral trade more than twice as large as Sino-Indian exports and imports, are finding it hard to ease their prickly political relationship, despite both being military allies of the United States.
Interstate economic ties in today’s market-driven world are not constrained by political problems. Even if China-India trade overtakes U.S.-India trade — a likely scenario — political issues will continue to divide Beijing and New Delhi.
The India-China strategic dissonance is rooted not only in their contrasting political ideals and quiet rivalry, but also in Beijing’s relentless pursuit of a classical, Sun Tzu-style balance-of-power strategy. While seeking to present itself as a see-no-evil, do-no-evil state, China is zealously working to build up its power capabilities to engage the world on its own terms. In order to avert the rise of a peer rival in Asia, it has sought to tie down India strategically.
China has stepped up strategic pressure on India on three separate flanks. It is fashioning two north-south strategic corridors on either side of India — the trans-Karakoram corridor from Xinjiang stretching right up to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port, at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil supply passes; and the Irrawaddy corridor involving road, river and rail links from Yunnan to the Burmese ports on the Bay of Bengal.
In addition, it is shoring up an east-west strategic corridor in occupied Tibet across India’s northern border. The new $6.2-billion railroad linking Lhasa with Beijing strengthens China’s hold on Tibet and boosts its rapid military deployment capability against India.
Gwadar, also designed to be a deep-water naval base, epitomizes the way China is assembling a “string of pearls” in the form of ports, listening posts and naval arrangements that stretch from Pakistan and Sri Lanka to Bangladesh and Burma. Having already stepped up direct and surrogate pressure on India’s north, China is now threatening to challenge the dominant Indian role in the Indian Ocean. A Chinese threat from the south will emerge if the Chinese navy positions itself along sea lanes critical to India’s security and economy.
China’s India policy can be summed up in three words — engagement with containment. Mr. Hu’s India visit represented the engagement face of China’s strategy. But Mr. Hu’s very next stop — Pakistan — was linked to the containment part. Over the years, China has built up Pakistan — its “all-weather ally” — as a military counterweight to India, transferring even nuclear-weapons technology and complete missile systems to Islamabad.
India and China have had an uneasy relationship ever since Mao Zedong’s 1950 annexation of Tibet eliminated a large historical buffer and brought Chinese troops to India’s borders for the first time in history. Within 12 years, Mao attacked India from two separate fronts, cleverly timing his aggression with the start of the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear war.
The wounds of that 32-day war in 1962 have been kept open by Beijing’s assertive claims to Indian areas even as it holds on to the territorial gains of that conflict. China’s unwillingness to settle the border dispute on the basis of the status quo has drawn strength from India’s self-injurious acceptance of Tibet as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” Seeking to territorially extend the gains from its annexation of Tibet, Beijing has followed a bald principle in the long-running border negotiations with India: “What is ours is ours to keep, but what is yours must be shared with us.” Its claims to Indian territories are not based on any purported Han connection to them but purported Tibetan Buddhist ecclesiastical links. India, having undercut its leverage, has retreated to an unviable position to ward off demands flowing from China’s insistence that what it covets is “disputed” and thus on the negotiating table.
It is not that India has only two options today: Either persist with a feckless policy or brace for confrontation. That is a false choice intended to snuff out any legitimate debate on the several options India has between the two extremes.
Through a realpolitik approach, India can build countervailing leverage. It can begin by refining its stance on Tibet so as to add elasticity and subtlety on an issue that defines the India-China chasm and forms the basis of Chinese claims on India.
It can propose to China that its path to greatness will be assisted if it initiated a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet and reached a deal that brought the Dalai Lama home from exile in Dharamsala, India.
For the foreseeable future, India and China will remain business partners rather than become friends. Neither side, however, would like to see their competition slide into confrontation.
Brahma Chelleney, a professor at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is an author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan” (HarperCollins, 2006).