The economic rise of China and India draws ever more attention. But the world has taken little notice of the rising border tensions and increasingly visible differences between the two giants.
With Barack Obama, US president, headed to Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s tour of the remote north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh provoking an angry Chinese response, the China-India-US triangle and Tibet have emerged at the centre of escalating tensions.
China has resurrected its long-dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh – almost three times as large as Taiwan – and stepped up military pressure along the 4,057km frontier with India through frequent incursions.
Beijing seems to be drawing the analogy that Arunachal is the new Taiwan that must be “reunified” with the Chinese state.
Tibet, however, has always been the core issue in Sino-Indian relations. China became India’s neighbour not by geography but guns – by annexing buffer Tibet in 1951. Today, Beijing is ready to whip up spats with western nations that extend hospitality to the Dalai Lama. But India remains the base of the Tibetan leader and his government-in-exile.
The key cause of the more muscular Chinese stance towards India is the US-Indian tie-up, unveiled in 2005.
Since then, the official Chinese media has started regurgitating the coarse anti-India rhetoric of the Mao Zedong era, with one commentator this week warning New Delhi not to forget 1962, when China humiliated India in a 32-day, two-front war.
Yet the Obama administration is reluctant to take New Delhi’s side in its disputes with Beijing. Washington has also shied away from cautioning Beijing against attempts to change the territorial status quo forcibly.
Mr Obama is committed to the partnership with India as part of which New Delhi has placed arms-purchase orders worth $3.5bn last year alone. But he has also signalled that any relationship will not be at the expense of fast-growing ties with Beijing.
Washington now intends to abandon elements in its ties with New Delhi that could rile China, including a joint military drill in Arunachal or a 2007-style naval exercise involving the US, India, Australia, Japan and Singapore. Even US naval manoeuvres with India and Japan are out. Washington is charting a course of tacit neutrality on the Arunachal issue.
As his secretary of state did in February, Mr Obama has started his Asia tour in Japan and will end in China – the high spot – while skipping India. But playing to India’s well-known weakness for flattery, he will honour it with his presidency’s first state dinner later this month.
Left to fend for itself, New Delhi has steered clear of confrontation with Beijing. It has sought to damp down military tensions and cut off all information to the media on the Himalayan border situation, including Chinese intrusions.
But faced with attacks at home for being “soft” on China, the government has asserted itself politically. It rebuffed repeated Chinese diplomatic appeals and allowed the Dalai Lama to travel to Arunachal. It also announced an end to the practice of Chinese companies bringing thousands of workers from China to work on projects in India.
But India cannot afford to be isolated. With Mr Obama pursuing a Sino-centric Asia policy, and with China-friendly heads of government in Australia, Japan and Taiwan, New Delhi’s diplomatic calculations have gone awry. But the hardline Chinese approach reinforces the Indian thinking that engendered Chinese belligerence: that India has little option other than to align with the US.
New Delhi has to manage its relationships with Beijing and Washington wisely so it does not lose out. Meanwhile, the US cannot ignore the pattern of Sino-Indian border provocations and new force deployments similar to what happened 47 years ago when China, taking advantage of the Cuban missile crisis, routed the Indian military in a surprise invasion.
When Mr Obama is in Beijing, his message should be that any military adventure will prove costly and trigger the rise of a militaristic, anti-China India. Mr Obama should propose a US-China-India initiative and encourage his hosts to begin a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author of ‘Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan’