Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2010
The summit last week between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a disappointment that signals more turbulence ahead in relations between the two Asian giants. True, the meeting resulted in the usual platitudes about friendship and cooperation. But it’s telling that the two neighbors were unable to make progress on resolving any of their current disputes.
During the first visit of a major Chinese leader to India in more than four years, some easing of political tensions should have been accomplished. Instead the two sides decided to kick all contentious issues down the road and expand bilateral trade by two-thirds over the next five years. However, increased trade is no panacea for the sharpening geopolitical rivalry.
First of all, while trade may benefit both sides, the perception in India is that China gains more. India’s trade deficit with China is ballooning, and it largely exports raw materials to China and imports finished products. The focus on trade, even as political disputes fester, plays into the Chinese agenda to secure new markets in India while continuing with a strategy to regionally contain that country.
In the last decade, bilateral trade has risen 20-fold, making it the only area where relations have thrived. But far from helping to turn the page on old rifts, this commerce has been accompanied by greater Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry and military tensions.
India-China relations have been going through an exceptionally frosty spell in recent years, with New Delhi’s warming relationship with Washington emboldening Beijing to up the ante through border provocations, resurrection of its long-dormant claim to the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which it has been calling "southern Tibet" since 2006), and other diplomatic needling. Beijing had initially sought to improve ties with New Delhi so that it could dissuade it from moving closer to Washington. But after the two democracies cemented a civilian nuclear deal in mid-2005, China turned more coercive toward its southern neighbor.
In 2009, relations sank to their lowest political point in more than two decades when Beijing unleashed a psychological war upon New Delhi, employing its state-run media and nationalistic Web sites to warn of another armed conflict. It was a throwback to the coarse rhetoric China had used in the buildup to the 32-day war in 1962. The Chinese Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, berated India for "recklessness and arrogance" and asked it to weigh "the consequences of a potential confrontation with China."
Ignoring the lesson that booming trade by itself is no guarantee of moderation or restraint between states, China and India have left their political rows to future generations to clear up, with Mr. Wen bluntly stating that sorting out the Himalayan border disputes "will take a fairly long period of time."
Even as these old rifts remain, new problems have arisen, roiling relations further. China (which occupies one-fifth of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir) has started a troubling three-pronged policy to build pressure on New Delhi over Kashmir, where the disputed borders of India, Pakistan and China converge. It has sought to enlarge its footprint in Pakistani-held Kashmir through new strategic projects; it has attempted to question India’s sovereignty over the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir by issuing visas on a separate leaf to Kashmiri residents holding Indian passports; and it has officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the 1,597-kilometer line separating Indian Kashmir from Chinese-held Kashmir.
Chinese strategic projects around India, including ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and new transportation links with Burma, Nepal and Pakistan, have been seriously unnerving India. The recently reported Chinese military presence in Pakistani-held Kashmir means that India faces Chinese troops on both flanks of its portion of Kashmir. The deepening China-Pakistan nexus—Mr. Wen’s next stop after India was to his country’s "all-weather" ally Pakistan—presents India with a two-front theater in the event of a war with either country.
The deterioration in China-India relations clearly demonstrates that rapidly expanding trade is no measure of progress in bilateral relations. Unless estranged neighbors fix their political relations, economics alone will not be enough to create goodwill or stabilize their relationship.
Clearly, China is unwilling to accept the territorial status quo. Yet it pushes for a free-trade agreement. With Western and Japanese markets racked by economic troubles, the Chinese export juggernaut needs a larger market share in India, the world’s second fastest-growing economy.
India must recognize the difference between being cautious and being meek: The former helps avert problems, while the latter symbolizes weakness and invites more pressure. To its credit, New Delhi last week refused to reaffirm its support for Beijing’s sovereignty over Tibet and Taiwan, hopefully bringing an end to a futile diplomatic giveaway: India had since the late 1980s been periodically renewing its commitment to a "one China" policy, even as Beijing not only declined to make a reciprocal one-India pledge, but also openly scoffed at India’s territorial integrity. New Delhi needs more such gumption.
Mr. Chellaney is the author, most recently, of "Asian Juggernaut" (HarperCollins, 2010).