Can China and India Be Friends?

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Gurinder Osan / AP

A Chinese soldier, left, and an Indian soldier maintain ceremonial positions at the Nathu La Pass.

To understand the significance of 100 Indian soldiers spending a week running around southwestern China alongside troops from that country's People's Liberation Army in mock battles against imaginary terrorists, it is worth noting that Operation Hand in Hand is the first-ever joint exercise between these two armies. They fought each other in 1962, and have not exactly warmed to one another in the decades since, for much of which India was close to China's erstwhile communist rival, the Soviet Union, while China has been a reliable ally of India's arch-foe, Pakistan. "The two sides will be like two porcupines facing each other," says Delhi-based security analyst C. Uday Bhaskar, "They have had little contact for 40 years, and a negative perception of the other still prevails, more so, perhaps, on the Indian side."

The joint exercise follows a series of smaller steps to break the ice, including a joint mountaineering expedition and joint naval exercises. In 2006, Beijing and New Delhi signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) providing for regular war games and annual defense summits. The thaw in the long-time Sino-Indian cold war began with the 1996 visit of Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin to New Delhi. Since elevating the relationship to a "strategic partnership" in 2005, the two countries have seen bilateral trade exceed $20 billion last year, and have worked together to voice common concerns in such international forums as the WTO and the Bali climate-change talks. "Sino-India relations are definitely on an upswing," says Dipanker Banerjee, director of the Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. "The army exercises are a result of a natural progression of events, so they are a welcome step."

Not everyone is as optimistic. Chief among the irritants to the relationship is a continuing border dispute: India accuses China of illegally occupying 43,180 square kilometers (16,672 square miles) of territory belonging to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, including 5,180 square kilometers (2,000 square miles) ceded to China by Pakistan. China, on its part, accuses India of occupying some 90,000 square kilometers (34,749 square miles) of Chinese territory, mostly in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Recently, Indian security experts have raised alarm over China's alleged military build-up near India's north-east, while India's Indo-Tibetan Border Police has revealed that there have been 141 border incursions by the Chinese in the past year.

"The Chinese have actually hardened their stance regarding the border issue," says Brahma Chellaney, a strategic studies expert with the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, "Last year, the Chinese Ambassador reiterated the Chinese claim on Arunachal Pradesh, and since then they have been trying to put the onus for settlement of the border issue disproportionately on India."

India is also concerned by China's burgeoning and secretive defense expenditure, its building of road and rail links along the border, and its "string of pearls" strategy of setting up naval bases in the Indian Ocean. But China has its own strategic concerns, particularly the fact that India is being courted by the U.S. in a strategy aimed at forging a regional alliance comprising India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. To that end, last September, India held joint naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal with the U.S., Australia, Japan and Singapore, soon after China's military exercises with Russia and the Central Asian members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China has also been protesting against India's refusal to allow Chinese direct investment in Indian ports, telecommunications and other sectors for security reasons.

This week's Sino-Indian military exercises are aimed at defusing some of this tension. "The exercises will help build military confidence between two nations that have a record of supporting dissidents on the other side — India in Tibet and China in India's North-East," says foreign affairs expert C. Raja Mohan. "They both now share a counter-terror agenda, and it is an important step forward for the two to collaborate." On the domestic political front, the exercises also offer the Indian government an opportunity to quiet criticism from its leftwing coalition partners over its pro-U.S. tilt.

Given its scale, Operation Hand in Hand is essentially symbolic, although it may set the stage for bigger and more regular war games in future. "However," says Chellaney, "Sino-Indian relations need to move beyond mere symbolic gestures towards more substantive steps to resolve outstanding issues." As the economic and security architecture of Asia is re-drawn, competition for resources and influence is likely to grow between Asia's second and third biggest economies. But this need not necessarily lead to tension, as Bhaskar points out: "What matters is how China wants to see India in the long run — as a worthy global power, or as an antagonist that must be mired in South Asia. In the past China has leaned towards the latter approach; it has been arming Pakistan to bog India down. But the way things are evolving, particularly with continuing economic globalization, that may not continue to be the case." Both India and China realize that they need peace to stay on their high growth trajectories. And for this, hand-in-hand will work better than fist-to-fist.