Behind China and India's Awkward Courtship

  • Share
  • Read Later
As Chinese Premier Hu Jintao began his four-day visit to India —the first by a Chinese head of state in more than a decade — there was plenty of talk about the good ties between the two countries, about the free trade agreement they hope to sign and about the fact that 2006 is "India-China Friendship Year." But what you won't hear as much about this week, at least not officially, are the tensions that remain between Beijing and New Delhi.

China's Ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, prompted angry rebuttals from Indian officials last week when he reiterated China's claim to the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh during a TV appearance, noting it was "Chinese territory" and that China claims the "whole of that" state, which it calls Southern Tibet. Beijing has also complained that Delhi is throwing up unfair barriers to investment by snarling Chinese companies in bureaucratic red tape, and chafed at a decision to bar a company linked to the Chinese military from taking up a lucrative air cargo contract, apparently over security concerns. And, of course, China remains a close ally of Pakistan, India's archenemy, a friendship Hu will shore up during talks with President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad as soon as he leaves India.

With a third of the world's population and two of its fastest-growing economies between them, the relationship between China and India is one of the most important of the 21st century. If they clash — as they have in the past over border disputes — global economic growth and stability will suffer. But as both have grown economically, relations have warmed: China-India trade is expected to reach $20 billion this year.

Moreover, India is obsessed with China. Mainland goods from refrigerators to clothes to cameras to children's toys flood Indian markets. China's pavilion is the most popular by far at the India International Trade Fair, which opened in Delhi last week and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors some days. (At one stand, The Hindu newspaper noted with amazement, punters can buy not only a pair of bargain-priced Chinese jeans, but also the Chinese machinery that makes them.) Indian newspapers are talking up the idea of an emerging "Chindia" — a phrase coined by Indian economist Jairam Ramesh — that acts as a counterbalance to traditional powers Europe and the U.S. And while the government still focuses on their differences — theirs is a democracy, Indian officials note, where laws are debated and voted on rather than pushed through by an all-powerful one-party state — it also looks to the success of Beijing's economic reforms as a model for transforming its own country.

Nevertheless, it will probably take some bold steps for Beijing and New Delhi to put the past behind them. "There's still a general climate of anxiety that persists between the two countries despite better relations," says Manoranjan Mohanty, co-chair of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi. "That history is not easy to erase." But if Hu's trip is considered a success — Delhi promises that Chinese investors will be treated the same as any other and promises to make it easier for Chinese entrepreneurs to obtain visas, while each nation announced it will open consulates in more of the other's cities — India and China may find that their past differences become easier to ignore.