Bordering on closeness

By Tim Collard
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 17, 2013
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New Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is about to set off on his first foreign visit since taking office. Where is he going? The USA? Russia? Japan? No, his destination is India. Ma Jiali, an India expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, has pointed out that this is "a complete break with normal protocol, demonstrating the importance China attaches to relations with India". It's certainly unexpected. What lies behind this?

Premier Li Keqiang meets a delegation of young people from India headed by Nita Chowdhury, secretary of the Indian Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, in Beijing in May 15. [By Wu Zhiyi /China Daily]

Premier Li Keqiang meets a delegation of young people from India headed by Nita Chowdhury, secretary of the Indian Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, in Beijing in May 15. [By Wu Zhiyi /China Daily]

On the face of it, China and India occupy broadly similar positions in today's world, and one might almost expect them to be rivals. Both are rapidly developing nations in the same global region and both have huge populations. There are significant differences, though; the size of China's economy gives her, whether she seeks it or not, a major geopolitical role in the 21st century, which India, although now also a nuclear nation, has not yet attained. In addition, their patterns of development have been different; China was held down for a long time by war and politics but has experienced explosive development over the last thirty years, whereas India has developed more slowly and steadily, being held back by ingrained bureaucracy and the weight of historic custom, neither of which are conducive to rapid change. Having said that, both face similar obstacles to development in the form of corruption and deep-rooted vested interests and both are essentially travelling in the same direction – breaking through from low-technology cheap-labor workshop to technological powerhouse.

Somehow, though, despite their similarities, relations between the two countries have never been close. Even fifty years later India is still smarting from her defeat by China in the border war of 1962, and there remain a number of disputed issues along the three sections of the common border. It does not help that India's principal rival, Pakistan, has always maintained the closest of relations with China, and has in the past ceded territory to China which India regarded as her own. There are continuing Chinese concerns over Tibet, which borders India and provides a source of Tibetan dissident refugees over the Himalayas. Additionally, even at this stage of global development, there are repeated skirmishes and an unstable stand-off along the Line of Actual Control near Kashmir at the western end of the border. Kashmir, of course, is the focus of the principal dispute between India and Pakistan.

Obviously, both China and India place great emphasis on the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity. But it is difficult to stake a firm position on a territorial issue when the border has never been precisely agreed or defined; the Line of Actual Control means just that: Dividing the territory according to who actually controls it, which means it effectively shifts with each movement of troops. In any case, this kind of territorial dispute is surely a relic of the 20th century; the area is remote and has little real strategic importance. It would be ridiculous if small territorial disputes of this kind were allowed to disrupt the common development of two leaders of the developing world.

Such unresolved issues are sufficient to prevent much real cooperation between China and India; even though trade is developing healthily, as one might expect where there are mutual economic interests to be satisfied, and even though China and India work alongside one another in the BRICS group. But India is still inclined to see China more as a threat than as a potential partner. In addition to the long-standing border disputes already mentioned, India is greatly concerned at the recent expansion of China's influence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Development in both countries is being supported by Chinese capital and Chinese expertise, aided by the fact that both countries are the focus of Western concerns regarding human rights issues. India suspects that China is preparing the ground for a military and naval presence in the two countries, stoking Indian fears of a Chinese encirclement.

These intimations and rumors of war sit very oddly with the global environment of the early 21st century; disputes between India and China come well down the international community's current list of concerns. China, in particular, is much more urgently focused on her neighbors to the East, where Japan, Taiwan, the South China Sea and Korean peninsula appear much more significant than a few remote parts of the Himalayas. It looks as though Premier Li's visit is intended to reassure the Indians of China's benign intentions. We can all agree in hoping he is successful in this. But, to ensure that this happens, both sides will have to be more circumspect about anything that looks like a provocation along the common border.

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