After the failed Copenhagen summit to discuss global action against climate change, many observers of global politics were warning that the new competitive game in town was the one between the developed (e.g., the United States, Western Europe and Japan) and the giant developing economies. After all, the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) stood as one against the wishes of Barack Obama and Co., who wanted to impose mandatory targets on carbon emissions. It was obvious that China and India in particular had coordinated strategies before the summit to scupper any binding agreement. Even if they were not allies, many believe that these two developing giants have much more in common with each other than they do with the developed countries. It is a compelling narrative – except for the fact that rivalry between China and India will intensify rather than weaken as each rises.
India and China have much in common. Both are big, populous, developing countries that were the strategic, cultural and economic giants of Asia for hundreds of years until British colonisation of India began in the 1600s. Since the 1700s, Asia has not witnessed a powerful China and India at the same time. As hard-nosed historians of international politics will confirm, the re-emergence of both is a recipe for rivalry rather than concord.
Australians tend to view ‘Asia’ as the vertical maritime corridor extending from Southeast Asia to East Asia. By ignoring South Asia and the Indian Ocean, we remain blissfully unaware of the strategic competition that is already taking place between India and China. Yet, if the rise of both giants continues, the ‘Chindia’ rivalry—a term coined by Indian politician Jairam Ramesh—could come to define the strategic landscape of Asia in the next few decades. As Zhang Yan, the Chinese ambassador to India, has said just prior to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to New Delhi on Wednesday, the bilateral relationship between Asia’s two biggest powers is “very fragile, very easy to be damaged, and very difficult to repair.”
Ambassador Yan is correct. By virtue of their respective locations and historical roles in Asia, anyone student of geopolitics will see that China and India appeared destined for competition from the moment of their creation as modern states. Indeed, New Delhi has been warily balancing and competing against Beijing from the very moment of modern India’s creation in 1947.
Given our ‘Asia-Pacific’ focus, few Australians realise the still tense and bloody relationship between the two countries. The 1962 China-India war led to a defeat for India, and China seizing the Aksai Chin region, which links Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. China still claims a Switzerland-sized 90,000 square kilometres of Indian territory, including large parts of the eastern-most state of the strategically-important Arunachal Pradesh (which has Burma to its east). Both continue to fight a low-intensity but violent conflict in this border region, and have done so for decades. The Indian military reported 270 Chinese border incursions into Indian territory in 2008, double the figure from 2007.
Moreover, China and India are locked in a battle of influence in the buffer state of Nepal and the Bay of Bengal access state of Bangladesh. For example, China backs Maoists in Nepal and sells arms to Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal in an attempt to foment ‘contained instability’ and gradually dilute Indian influence in these states. China offers just enough strategic and military (including nuclear and ballistic missile) assistance to Pakistan to keep India distracted in south Asia (but not enough to become a focal-point in the existing India-Pakistan problem). New Delhi is also apprehensive about Chinese militarisation, and in particular nuclearisation of the Tibetan plateau which hosts an estimated one third of China’s nuclear arsenal. Significantly, India is the only country that is not covered by China’s ‘no first use’ nuclear weapons policy doctrine.
Finally, expanding Chinese interests in the shipping routes through the Indian Ocean (through which Middle East oil imports to China pass) means that the traditional land-locked rivalry has extended to naval competition in the Indian Ocean—New Delhi’s traditional sphere of maritime dominance. China has set up rudimentary naval ports, listening stations, logistics depots and refuelling ports in waters belonging to Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Cambodia. This includes a Chinese facility in the Coco Islands, which lie only 18 kilometres north of the Indian naval base in the Andaman Islands. China is constructing a waterway that extends from Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal through the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Even though America would be loathe to explicitly say so, it is no wonder Washington sees India as a natural and convenient counter-weight to Chinese ambitions in Asia.
This is all occurring in the context of a Chinese-Indian two way trade relationship that has risen from $US18.7 billion in 2005 to an estimated $US60 billion in 2010. There is no doubt that Premier Wen is India to not only discuss simmering tensions but conclude further trade deals, if the reported size of China’s accompanying business delegation of four hundred is accurate.
Nevertheless, the story of increasing economic dependency with a strategic rival is a common one in Asia when it comes to China. Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia are all facing the same dilemma. Far from a contest between BRIC countries underpinned by a ‘Chindia’ alliance against the developed economies, the intensifying rivalry between these two developing giants is the more likely scenario and the more significant development that will shape Asia’s future.