The myth of economic complementarity in Sino-Indian relations.

Author:Huang, Yasheng
Position:Sino-Indian Relations - Report

It is now a part of conventional wisdom that both China and India are emerging economic, political and even military powers in the 21st century. Terms such as "BRIC" and "Chindia," and phrases such as "not China or India, but China and India" have entered popular discourse and policy discussions. Such terms imply a synergistic relationship between China and India--an implication that belies the tension that has characterized Sino-Indian relations for centuries. My view is less sanguine than many others' about the prospects of their relations. Relations between the two countries will be fraught with difficulties and will likely remain fragile. Conflict and competitiveness are deeply rooted in historical and structural causes, while forces for harmony are more contingent on political will cultural understanding and careful policy management. There are several areas in which their relations can go wrong. At a fundamental level, the two countries are in an economically competitive, not a complementary, relationship with each other. Their economic and social endowments are similar (as compared with China/U.S. or India/U.S.). India and China offer very different lessons about economic policies and growth. This is not to suggest that the two countries are headed toward an inevitable collision, but to identify the urgency of carefully managing their relations and nurturing trust and goodwill on both sides.


One of the most memorable terms that has emerged together with the emergence of China and India as economic powers is "Chindia." The credit apparently goes to Jairam Ramesh, who, as the Indian minister of state for environment and forests, gave the concept an apparent official imprimatur, (1) Premier Wen Jiabao also emphasized the complementary aspects of Sino-Indian relations in his 2010 trip to India. He had some tangible proof--the trip resulted in commercial agreements valued at $16 billion. (2)

Beneath these official pleasantries, however, there are some underlying tensions. According to press reports, the Chinese delegation sought help from the Indian government to clamp down on what the Chinese viewed as excessively negative coverage of China in the Indian press--a request the Indian government politely declined on the grounds of press freedom. (3) Zhang Yan, the Chinese envoy to India, was quoted as saying that "China-India relations are very fragile and very easy to be damaged and very difficult to repair. Therefore, they need special care in the information age." (4)

The idea of "Chindia" conjures the image of two fast-growing Asian giants united by their common challenges and their recent economic success. The term suggests that these commonalities are sufficiently powerful to overcome the weight of history--most notably, the Sino-Indian War of 1962. In fact, Zhang Yan's assessment of Sino-Indian relations is more accurate than those offered in official speeches by Jairam Ramesh and Wen Jiabao. Deep historical and structural forces will keep cooperation between the two countries at bay, and forces for harmony are more contingent upon political will, cultural understanding and careful policy management. It is not the claim here that the two countries will inevitably head toward collision. Rather, it is my contention that relations between the two countries will be fraught with difficulties and are, and will likely remain, fragile in the sense that Zhang Yan conveyed.

Increased engagement between China and India has brought the border issues back to the fore rather than relegating them to the dustbin of history. Both countries claim sovereignty over two pieces of territory. One is Aksai Chin, located in the Indian province of Kashmir or the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The other is referred to as Arunachal Pradesh by India and South Tibet by China. In 1987, the two countries came close to another clash, but things calmed in 1993 when the two countries signed a treaty to ensure peace over disputed areas and introduced an interesting concept called the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The LAC averted immediate clashes but did not resolve the problem itself. The disputes opened up again in more recent years as Chinese economic growth began to spread from the coastal provinces to the interior and western regions. In 2006, China opened the world's highest railway line from Xining, Qinghai province, to Lhasa, Tibet, very close to the LAC. In July 2010, Gunsa Airport was opened in Tibet's Ngari prefecture. The following October, Xigaze Airport started operations. Meanwhile, Chinese construction on the Yarlung Tsangpo River and on deepwater ports in South Asia, and Beijing's close relationship with Pakistan caused concerns inside India.

In November 2006, concerns over China's military ability and infrastructure construction near the LAC prompted Indian politicians from Arunachal Pradesh to appeal to the Indian parliament for a harsher stance on China. Indians argued that the Chinese were engaged in a military buildup on their side of the border similar to the one in 1962. (5) Since then, India has significantly strengthened its military preparedness along the LAC. According to one report, an artillery brigade and two new battalions of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim scouts were posted in the region. The Indian air force has begun to deploy two squadrons of combat fighters in eastern India, close to the LAC, and has upgraded six airstrips in Arunachal Pradesh to improve troop mobility. India counteracted China's railway construction in Tibet with its own infrastructural investments in the LAC area. In 2009, Defence Minister A. K. Antony announced close to $200 million in 2009-10 funding to build roads near the LAC--double 2008-09 spending. (6)

The tensions have become even more explicit in recent years. China expressed strong concerns over a 2009 visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Arunachal Pradesh, a trip that was designed for seeking votes in domestic elections rather than as a foreign policy gesture. Indians simply ignored the Chinese protestations. Indian foreign minister S. M. Krishna said, "Well, regardless of what others say it is the Government of India's stated position that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India. We rest at that." (7) Whether by coincidence or by design, just one month later, the Dalai Lama visited Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, further provoking Beijing. For its part, China tried to block a loan to India from the Asian Development Bank for a conservancy project of Arunachal Pradesh, although the attempt failed. (8) But the damage was already done to relations between the two countries.

There is evidence that the sensitivity of Sino-Indian relations is spilling over into a global dimension. In November 2009, Indian officials reacted very negatively to a joint statement by U.S...

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