Jan 14, 2008
China + India = Chindia, a strategic partnership
By C. Raja Mohan, For The Straits Times
IN THEIR talks this week in Beijing, the visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese President Hu Jintao hope to unveil a new phase in bilateral relations.
After the unreal idealism of the 1950s, war and conflict during the 1960s and 1970s, and a wary normalisation of ties during the 1980s and 1990s, India and China are seeking to inject real strategic content into their relationship.
Both countries are today acutely aware of their own changing positions in the global power hierarchy. Self-assurance in both the capitals has begun translating into a new engagement that promises to transcend the traditional emphasis on contentious bilateral issues.
Although much of the world has been animated by the rise of China and the emergence of India, and their potential impact on the world - from global warming to the Asian balance of power - Beijing and New Delhi were burdened for long by a narrow bilateral framework.
To be sure, the idea of 'Chindia' - of China and India taking on the world - was invented a few years ago in New Delhi. On its part, China in recent years has repeatedly reaffirmed its desire for a genuine friendship with India.
Despite their aspirations for a strategic partnership, mutual suspicion over Tibet, an intractable boundary dispute, and differences over Pakistan were among the many issues that limited the scope of the relationship in the past.
It is only now, amidst a grudging acceptance of each other's rise, that China and India have begun to explore a broader agenda of regional and international cooperation.
Until recently, China used to view India as a mere regional power within the subcontinent. Worse still, the Chinese establishment was convinced that India, with its internal chaos, would never get its act together.
Over the last decade, India has surprised China in many ways. India not only defied the international system by conducting nuclear tests in May 1998, but it has also successfully negotiated its entry into the nuclear club by cultivating a special relationship with the Bush administration. India's unprecedented high growth rates in recent years have also made it clear to Beijing that the economic momentum behind New Delhi's rise is now real and consequential.
New Delhi's successful big power diplomacy - including a rapprochement with Washington and Tokyo - has made Beijing aware of India's potential to constrict China's room for manoeuvre. As India pulls away from its dispirited sibling Pakistan, China's traditional policy of balancing India within the subcontinent has become unsustainable.
India, too, has steadily come to terms with the implications of China's rise. The Indian industry, which initially feared economic competition from Beijing, now sees China as a huge economic opportunity. Trade between the two nations has increased about a hundredfold - from a measly US$300 million (S$430 million) a decade ago to nearly US$38 billion in 2007. The Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President are now expected to set more ambitious targets for bilateral trade.
India, which in the past was anxious about China's ties with its smaller neighbours, is now reconciled to the inevitability of Beijing's rising profile in and around the subcontinent. For the Indian strategic establishment, the answer lies not in a perennial gripe but in emulating China's forward-looking economic policies towards the neighbours.
Amidst its growing economic and military capabilities, India is now more confident of raising its own profile in the presumed backyard of China - East and South-east Asia.
Given the burden of the past, Dr Singh and Mr Hu are bound to pay some attention to the old bilateral agenda. In their joint declaration, the two sides are likely to review the progress made so far on the boundary dispute and reaffirm their political commitment to its early resolution.
Thanks to a reasonably stable frontier and the new breadth of the bilateral ties, the two leaders are expected to focus on the construction of a partnership that looks at a wider regional and global agenda.
One element of the putative strategic partnership lies in mutual political reassurance that they do not pose a security threat to each other. On the eve of his three-day visit to Beijing, Dr Singh had once again reaffirmed that India will not join any alliance aimed at containing China. Beijing, in turn, has recognised the dangers of pushing India into the arms of the United States and the importance of encouraging New Delhi to take a more relaxed view of China's rise.
Second, India and China are likely to emphasise their shared interest in regional stability in different sub-regions of Asia. The effect that a failed state in Pakistan would have on their own security is likely to nudge Dr Singh and Mr Hu to exchange views on the deepening structural crisis in India's very important western neighbour. While it is premature to talk of Sino-Indian cooperation in stabilising Pakistan, New Delhi's vastly improved relations with Islamabad have begun to alter the old triangular dynamic between India, China and Pakistan.
Beyond the subcontinent, India and China will have to work hard to harmonise their positions in the Central, South-east and East Asian regions. All indications are that there is a new political will in both the capitals to begin a serious conversation about their common neighbourhood.
Third, as their national interests turn global, India and China are beginning to bump into each other in different regions of the world.
Dr Singh and Mr Hu now recognise the importance of minimising the potential for future conflict, and maximising the prospect for greater cooperation on a range of issues - from global trade talks to international terrorism, and from African development to energy security.
As the two leaders work on a significant regional and global agenda, sceptics around the world will be looking for any movement on an issue that has cast a sha-
dow over the future of Sino-Indian relations - China's ambiguity regarding India's nuclear deal with the United States.
An explicit signal from the Chinese leadership during Dr Singh's visit that Beijing will not oppose the implementation of the Indo-US civil nuclear initiative, and might even be prepared to embark on atomic energy cooperation with India, could fundamentally alter the popular Indian misgivings about China and pave the way for a real strategic partnership between the two Asian giants.
C. Raja Mohan is a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
b>Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese President Hu Jintao now recognise the importance of minimising the potential for future conflict, and maximising the prospect for greater cooperation on a range of issues - from global trade talks to international terrorism, and from African development to energy security.