China and Neighbourhood

SINO-INDIAN RELATIONS: Competition or Cooperation?

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Despite protests by the Chinese government, the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama went ahead with plans to visit a heavily militarized Tibetan Buddhist area in northeast India in November 2009, which is the focus of an intense territorial dispute between China and India.



Dalai Lama had re-iterated that he did not want to be the cause for escalation of tensions between India and China, the former being his host for past six decades. This visit had ignited the Sino-Indian border dispute and could risk making this region the proxy battleground where both India and China seek to proclaim their respective sovereignty. Dalai Lama’s recent visits and public appearances in different non-political events in India have once again irked the Chinese officials who believe that India is inciting anti-Chinese sentiments leading to cancellation of high-profile talks at the governmental levels.

Tension had slowly been building up between the two Asian giants, with media commentators further inciting the divergence of opinions. There have been wide-spread speculations regarding Chinese intentions to wage war on India, which is unlikely in the current scenario. Reports had also appeared in Chinese state media alleging that India was moving troops and fighter aircraft to the northeast, specifically into Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

The Sino-Indian border dispute continues to remain a cause of slightly greater concern as the two countries have been in mutually antagonistic and unchanging positions for decades. There also seems to be a lack of genuine diplomatic initiative to resolve the tension and a growing differential in comprehensive national power which increasingly favours China.[1]

Meeting his Chinese counter-part, Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Hanoi on 28-29 October, 2010, the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh set the tone by commenting that “China’s rise is a fact of life”, implying that China has to be engaged, and not contained, thoughtfully and imaginatively; China needed to be respected and not suspected, trusted and not doubted. Referring to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Indian Foreign Secretary Ms. Nirupama Rao said that dealing with a “peaceful rise of China requires close analysis, study and understanding”.[2]

But the world has taken little notice of the rising border tensions and sharpening geopolitical rivalry between the two giants that represent competing political and social models of development. Even though China and India have more than 20-years track record of cooperation, both countries have ample justification for being cautious. On the one hand, US hegemony and greater US involvement in Asia may push the two neighbours toward even more cooperation. On the other hand, the degree to which one nation perceives the other as a threat could encourage closer ties with the United States. According to the United States National Intelligence Council Report on emerging global trends, by 2015, international community will have to confront the military, political and economic dimensions of the rise of China and India.  How these two countries manage their relationship will have a tremendous impact on peace and stability in the regional and, increasingly, global context. Against this backdrop of a changing international environment, the two Asian powers find themselves locked into what Barry Buzan has called the “security complex” within which they are expected to manage their rivalry and develop ties of cooperation.[3] Historical evidence shows that although China has been a major security concern for India, the Chinese were less wary of India and concentrated more on the pattern of superpower rivalry existing between the United States and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.

After years of cold peace, mistrust and hostility since the Sino-Indian border clashes in 1962, the demands of realpolitik and pragmatism in policy-making transformed one of Asia’s most important relationships – bilateral ties between India and China. The end of the Cold War witnessed the development of two defining characteristics in the security environment of the Asia-Pacific region: First, the United States has become the only superpower in the world today. It is also the most important external power in Asia, and plays a key role in Asian security; Second, old rivals, China and India have emerged as strong regional powers, as evidenced by impressive economic growth, the development of nuclear arsenals, and demonstrated ambitions for respective influences in the Pacific and South Asian regions.


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downloadbutton3Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 3  No. 1

* Ananya Chatterjee is a PhD candidate at the University of Reading.

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