When Manmohan Singh warned of China’s “new assertiveness” last week, Asia watchers snapped to attention. The normally sage Indian prime minister accused Beijing of seeking to expand its reach in South Asia. With China muscling for resources and geopolitical clout, India, he warned, had better take heed. The timing of the rare public rebuke was especially provocative, as it came hot on the heels of a series of diplomatic flare-ups between the two giants. Temperatures on the continent are rising in step with the Asian rivals’ growth.
Last month, China denied a visa to an Indian general on the grounds he was based in disputed Jammu and Kashmir. That was retaliation, experts figure, for India’s earlier denial of a visa to a senior Chinese diplomat. China has, for more than a year, been angering India by refusing to issue normal visas to residents of Indian Kashmir. It is also stoking Indian fears of being encircled by a Chinese infrastructure build-up in northern Pakistan, and Indian Ocean port and rail developments in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Last month, India’s excitable media seized on reports that China has stationed as many as 11,000 troops in northern Pakistan, feeding growing fears of the “Chinese dragon.” For now, a planned defence exchange between the two has been halted at New Delhi’s behest.
This diplomatic tit-for-tat is getting a lot of attention because the lineup features the world’s two biggest countries, its two fastest growing economies, and two of its biggest militaries, which boast a combined four million troops, and nukes in both arsenals. To regional analysts, China and India are gearing up for what the Economist recently dubbed the “contest of the century.” To hawks, they’re on the road to war. Not only has China become a key concern for Indian strategists and decision-makers, but Beijing has begun fretting about India’s diplomatic assertiveness and military modernization, says Jonathan Holslag, a Brussels-based scholar of Chinese foreign policy and author of the recent book China and India: Prospects for Peace.
Right now, “the top leadership in each country is well aware of the high costs of a clash,” he says. “But there is huge pressure to respond strongly to alleged provocations and to keep the other’s military power in check.”
Cooler minds, however, point to a long history of economic co-operation, an interdependent relationship cheerily named “Chindia.” The two countries, meanwhile, see eye-to-eye on a range of issues, from development to global finance—especially since Washington backed off its recent push for deeper ties to New Delhi, says Joseph Caron, a former Canadian ambassador to both China and India. Two-way trade, he adds, is booming, and should top $60 billion this year.
Yet they are also rivals for increasingly scarce resources, notably oil and water; the fight for the latter is sure to get ugly, given that many of India’s big rivers rise from Tibet’s rapidly melting glaciers. And their long-standing grudges aren’t going anywhere. Beijing continues its support for India’s foe, Pakistan, while the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, remains happily ensconced in exile in India. Trade, even doves admit with worry, is deeply skewed.
While China exports manufactured goods to India, India, a resource provider—chiefly iron ore—can’t get its products into China. Beyond the massive trade imbalance, many Indians have deep-seated security concerns about the products China’s Internet and telecommunications giants are selling them, says Caron. These fears were reinforced when in April, Canadian researchers exposed the systematic penetration of Indian government computers from locations in China.
Their brief but bloody 1962 war has since faded from memory, but tensions remain over their shared 4,000-km border. In places, there simply is no agreed border, says Caron, now a distinguished scholar with the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation. China, meanwhile, claims some 90,000 sq. km in India, an area more than twice the size of Switzerland. A lot of its claims are tied to Tibet, which Beijing now considers a “core interest” on par with Taiwan, according to China expert Susan Shirk, a former Clinton administration official. With cross-border incursions recently spiking to one a day, Brahma Chellaney, an expert in strategic studies at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, sees a “perceptible hardening” in China’s stance toward India. In response, India has had to beef up its Himalayan forces, which he considers an “attrition tactic” by the People’s Liberation Army designed to bog down India’s military.
Many of the incursions, however, are bogus. After all, no one knows where the border really falls. Shirk even accuses India of “exaggerating” the Chinese threat. “It’s frustrating to them that China doesn’t take them more seriously.” Caron agrees. China puts itself on the same mat as the U.S., he says, not India. This underlines a big problem, he adds: the Indians don’t know much about China, and vice versa. “They’re close neighbours geographically—but the societies couldn’t be more different,” and their interaction for long years has been minimal, says Caron.
To many Chinese, according to a recent opinion poll, India remains a backward country, teeming with “poor, homeless people,” not a rising giant. Their mutual incomprehension does little to build friendships.
To Caron, there’s nothing new or noteworthy about China and India’s cat-and-mouse game—“they’ve been at it for 300 years.” Certainly none of it signals a march to war. Bad as it may seem, Beijing and Delhi are also sitting down for their 14th round of border talks, and recently orchestrated a joint walkout at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. The outside world’s interest does, however, serve to underscore the immense and growing power of the Asian rivals. Even five years ago, this odd little spat would have drawn a yawn from the West.