The China-India Rivalry: Watching the Border

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An Indian soldier, left, and his Chinese counterpart stand still at the China-India border.

It's a sign of how delicate feelings are between Asia's two rising powers that an obscure blog post can cause an international incident. Just recently, Indian newspapers circulated the incendiary comments of an essay published on a nationalist Chinese website. The essay — authored under the pen name Zhanlue, or "strategy" in Mandarin — suggested that it was in Beijing's interest to support insurgencies on India's borderlands that could eventually dismember the diverse Indian federal state. The uproar in India over this provocation forced officials in New Delhi to respond, saying that "the article in question ... does not accord with the official state position of China on India-China relations." That bland assertion, though, does little to stanch a lingering anxiety, particularly in India, that tensions between the two giants will inexorably come to a tipping point. "There cannot be two suns in the sky," warns Zhanlue's post.

The hubbub over the essay came at a moment when Indian and Chinese officials were engaged in a round of largely futile talks over long-standing disputes along their mountainous 1,060-mile (1,700 km) border. A war fought between the two countries in 1962 was brief, but its legacy remains rancorous, with both New Delhi and Beijing claiming chunks of land now patrolled by the other's troops. Though sparsely populated, the contested territories, from a sliver of Kashmir to the entirety of Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern state in India that China imagines is part of Tibet, are heavily militarized.

While both nations are engaged in a budding geopolitical chess match across Asia—building naval bases abroad and enhancing ties with smaller regional powers—the rugged Himalayan frontier remains the chief fault line for potential hostilities. Zhanlue's post recommended helping militants across the border in Assam realize their separatist ambitions in the near future—a proposal that feeds into the convictions of Indian hawks like retired army officer Bharat Verma, who warned in the Indian Defence Review in July that China would attempt, covertly or otherwise, to attack India by 2012.

Many China watchers have dismissed the essay as a product of China's frenetic and often hyper-nationalist community of Netizen bloggers. The Danwei blog, a respected China commentator, says that elements of Zhanlue's essay have appeared on Chinese websites since 2005. The essay's premise —that India can be easily dissolved into its composite, regional parts—displays a naivete few actual policy experts would be capable of. Nonetheless, some Indian analysts see Zhanlue's ambition as part of an internal, chest-thumping dialogue within China that the rulers in Beijing don't wish to discourage.

Despite India and China's ever expanding trade ties and the occasional cuddly platitudes uttered by their leaders, the intractable border dispute is a fundamental impasse in their relations. China has negotiated boundary settlements with virtually all of its other neighbors—even with Japan, an old and bitter foe—but refuses to drop its Indian claims. In India, growing awareness of the gulf between the two countries, from China's colossal foreign-exchange reserves to its ballooning military spending, has also heightened concern within certain policy circles.

There's also a disconnect between how the public in both countries perceive each other. Indian wariness rubs up against what is, at best, Chinese indifference—at worst, contempt. Ask most Chinese, and they will tell you India is a backward, chaotic place, bereft of decent infrastructure and burdened by hideous poverty. It has no part in the vision projected by Beijing of the 21st century as a Chinese one, a sense of grand historic purpose accepted by the bulk of China's population. The confident certainty behind Zhanlue's spurious post that China could break India with minimal fuss into 20 or 30 pieces is, if nothing else, an expression of a larger disdain.

But the underlying irony is that China, not India, remains the nation more threatened by the specter of ethnic separatism. The Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Tibetans to their south number fewer than, say, Kashmiris and Assamese in India, yet their aspirations for nationhood garner much greater global sympathy. This is chiefly the fault of Beijing, whose uncompromising, authoritarian rule has pushed certain minorities to the brink and transformed dissident leaders in exile into enduring spiritual anchors for their people.

Indeed, China could do worse than to look at India, a country that has managed to live with its proverbial million mutinies by safeguarding regional languages and cultures and, most importantly, letting the poor and marginalized throw out their local rulers every election cycle. Perhaps a time may come, then, when rather than spying weaknesses in India's multi-ethnic landscape, strategists in Beijing may draw inspiration from their neighbor's pluralism. In an era of great-power gamesmanship, that may be wishful thinking. But it surely is a better path than the one walked by the warmongers and doomsayers on both sides.