Asia’s two largest countries, India and China, are aspiring to become world leaders, but experts agree, both will have to learn how to get along, not only for their own growth, but for the prosperity of the continent.
Asia’s two largest countries, India and China, have had a rocky relationship in the past, shadowed over by disputes over water and their shared 4,000 kilometer border. But with both countries aspiring to become world economic and military leaders, the future of Asia will rely on good relations between the two nuclear powers; Experts believe that if both wish to continue on the path of growth, they will have to learn to get along.
Dr. Lawrence Sáez of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies says the easiest way to describe the relationship between India and China is, "as being problematic." He says friendly sentiment between the two in the 1950s and early 1960s was quickly dissolved with the Sino-Indian War of 1962 over border disputes. He says now, the relationship is mostly defined by China’s economic and military rise and most recently, by a sentiment of rivalry in India.
A recent study on world arms transfers by the Swedish think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) highlights this sentiment. The results have found that India is now the world’s largest importer of arms. According to Siemon Wezeman of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme, "Indian imports of major conventional weapons are driven by a range of factors. The most often cited relate to rivalries with Pakistan and China as well as internal security challenges."
"One-sided" arms race, at best
India increasing its arsenal to match China’s military growth translates to a kind of arms race. But Sáez says it is a one-sided arms race: "its really an arms race between perhaps one country that thinks it is having an arms race with the other one." From the point of view of china, the US is more of a threat and "India is mostly like a pesky neighbour rather than anything else and it has weapons and so on, but they don’t really see them as threatening their security in that sense."
On the other hand, for India, China is a real threat. Sáez says this is mostly because of its support of Pakistan. And this support seems to be growing. During celebrations of Pakistan’s national holiday, Pakistan Day, Pakistani ambassador to China, Masood Khan said, "Pakistan and China are celebrating the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations. This year, we shall take our bilateral relations to new heights." In the ceremony, the Chinese were greatly thanked for aid efforts in areas of Pakistan that were devastated by the flood in 2010 and awards were given out to highlight Pakistan’s gratitude. The Chinese are no less amiable. Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, designated 2011 the year of "China-Pakistan Friendship" and in terms of aid and arms, Islamabad is high on Beijing’s list. A SIPRI study found that China is a major supplier of arms to Pakistan - a trend that not only India is worried about.
A further area of conflict is that Beijing is constructing ports in the Indian Ocean. "China has been building ports in Birma, in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, it is suspected that they have started the construction of a submarine base in the Maldives, in Pakistan and so on." Sáez says Beijing has been helping these countries in the construction of deepwater ports because it is interested in securing its oil pipeline and sea transfers for oil and he says it is a matter of time before they clash over this aspect. "At some point, they will be in a situation where they will come into conflict with each other."
Determining the rules
When it comes to water resources, China also has the upper hand over India, as the Tibetan Water Tower is the source of many Asian rivers, among them, the Brahmaputra, or Yarlung Sangpo, as it is called in China, where, to New Delhi’s dismay, Beijing is now constructing a dam. But if tensions should escalate, Delhi also has some leverage, says Sáez. "If it wanted to, India could make it difficult for China with respect to Tibet. A lot of Tibetan refugees are based in India, India has a very strong influence in Nepal, for instance."
Despite the many areas of conflict, there has been some progress in economic ties between the two Asian giants, with bilateral trade reaching over 60 billion USD in 2010. Jonathan Holslag of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies believes it is best for the two to concentrate on that. He says the two should avoid a "race to the bottom" in terms of economic competition and rivalry if they are to promote internal development and economic growth. "That said, however, I think the more that India makes eyes at becoming an industrialized nation, the more it will emerge as a major challenger to china."
Holslag belives that historical distrust and nationalism could undermine attempts to mend the ties. He says, despite massive trade and proliferating business exchanges, it is often difficult for the two to find common ground in terms of real synergies, "because there is this shadow over the 1962." He believes past tensions continue to dictate strategic thinking and cannot help the feeling of rivalry. "That, I think, will make it very difficult for china and India to steer clear of the kind of traditional concerns and tensions that have been holding the relationship in the past."