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Dec 16, 2010 | 11:47 GMT

6 mins read

China and India: Dragon vs. Elephant

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, a massive diplomatic entourage and a business delegation representing 100 firms arrived in India on Wednesday for a three-day visit. Wen began the visit by addressing concerns over the growing Sino-Indian rivalry, proclaiming that there need be no essential conflict between the Dragon and the Elephant and that Asia has room enough for both of them. After meeting with Indian Premier Manmohan Singh, Wen will travel to Pakistan, a staunch Chinese ally and Indian arch-foe, to emphasize where his deepest commitments lie.

Wen's visit comes at a time of revived mutual suspicion. Two major incidents in particular have aggravated sore spots in the relationship. Riots in Lhasa, Tibet, in 2008 caused Beijing to worry more about breakaway tendencies in its far western province, whose exiled government is supported by New Delhi. Meanwhile, Pakistan's continued support of various militant proxies has put the Sino-Pakistani alliance into renewed focus for New Delhi, especially in light of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. But alongside these signal events, Beijing's growing economic clout has led it to expand infrastructure and military installations across its western regions in an attempt to bolster its territorial claims and secure its far-flung provinces from separatist or militant influences. India has bulked up its border infrastructure and security in response. And, perhaps most novel, Beijing's growing dependency on overseas oil and raw materials has driven it to seek land and sea pathways to the Indian Ocean through closer relations with South Asian states generally and port agreements with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar, leading India to worry it will be encircled and someday threatened by China's navy.

Economic growth is one of the primary reasons world powers have courted India this year, with U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy already having visited. Wen's trip is no different, and already the two sides claim to have signed nearly 50 deals worth an estimated $16 billion if actualized. But deepening economic relations have not eased tensions, especially given the growing Indian trade deficit with China (from a surplus of $832 million in 2005 to a deficit of nearly $16 billion in 2009), which Wen acknowledged on the first day of his visit needed to be improved while simultaneously asking for greater market access for Chinese exporters.

Beijing has its mind set on gaining control of land and sea routes to the Indian Ocean and needs internal mobility in its far west to prevent separatism and fortify its borders, and these policies are driving tensions with India higher. While India is keen on displaying its relationship with China as far more cooperative than confrontational, a serious self-critique is developing within New Delhi over its slow reaction to Chinese moves in the Indian periphery. China's presence may be much more visible now in places like Kashmir, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, but that presence was built up methodically over several years. India, with no shortage of issues to keep itself occupied at home, is now finding that it is years behind China in countries that New Delhi would like to believe sit firmly within its sphere of influence.

In the past, India could rely on its influence in Tibet to send a warning to China. In fact, External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna aired this threat in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart in November when he said that just as India has been sensitive to Chinese concerns over Tibet and Taiwan, Beijing too should be mindful of Indian sensitivities on Jammu and Kashmir. The problem India has now is that this warning simply does not carry as much weight as it did. China has made considerable progress in building up the necessary political, economic and military linkages into Tibet to deny the Indians opportunities to needle Beijing in critical buffer territory. Moreover, India has not been able to invest the necessary time and effort into strengthening competitive relationships in more distant places like Southeast Asia and Taiwan — and has only begun with Japan — that would deeply unsettle Beijing.

In fact, a discussion is taking place within some military circles in India over how China may be deliberately playing up issues on its land borders in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh to divert India's attention northward while China pursues its objectives in the Indian Ocean basin, something that STRATFOR alluded to when the stapled visa issue flared up in the summer. Yet India is not alone in its alarm. The world is increasingly looking at China not only as a source of growth, but as an independent-minded and potentially unpredictable variable in the international system. Beijing's increasing boldness has become one of the chief talking points in foreign policy circles, extending beyond international hard bargaining over resources and into China's conduct around its entire periphery and in international organizations.

When India openly worries about China's intentions in exercising its newly found strengths, it is joined by the likes of Japan, South Korea, Australia, a number of China's Southeast Asian neighbors and, most important, the United States. The problem for Beijing is that it is ultimately outnumbered, and overpowered, but its attempts to prepare against threats make it appear more threatening. Beijing sees the international coalition forming against it, and in particular fears U.S. attention will soon come to rest squarely on it and that a strategic relationship with India is part of American designs. Hence, Wen has reason to play nice with India, if only to make China appear a more benign player and not hasten India's moves to counteract it.

Nevertheless, Beijing has its mind set on gaining control of land and sea routes to the Indian Ocean and needs internal mobility in its far west to prevent separatism and fortify its borders, and these policies are driving the tensions with India higher. Thus, while India senses Chinese encirclement in South Asia, Beijing senses American encirclement, of which India is only one part. Even with modern technology, the Himalayas remain a gigantic divider. But these two states have fought a border war in the Himalayas before, so the risks are real. Regardless of growing economic cooperation, both sense a growing security threat from the other that cannot be easily allayed.

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