Despite all the positive spin following President Hu Jintao's (
True, their trade has increased to US$20 billion and is projected to double over the next few years, and high level political exchanges between them have been on the up, but the innate distrust that marks their relationship hasn't diminished over the years.
The starting point was their border dispute, leading in 1962 to a brief military confrontation. And this dispute remains unresolved to this day, creating a sense of unease.
Since the 1980s, though, both countries have sought to find a way out of it by sidelining the border question and getting on with developing their overall relationship.
Beijing was keen on this approach, apparently satisfied with the new borderline it had created during the 1962 border conflict, having annexed the strategic Aksai Chin area in the northwest sector of the border for its Xinjiang-Tibet road.
New Delhi, however, wanted some mechanism to resolve the border question even as the two countries sought to develop other aspects of their relationship. The result has been a continuing process of official-level meetings to deal with the issue, but it hasn't really made much headway.
Beijing doesn't like India's preoccupation with the border question. And when this happens at a time when it is also entering into a close strategic relationship with the US, China feels the need to put some pressure on New Delhi. It was against this backdrop that Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Yuxi (
But this claim wasn't pressed during Hu's visit. That would suggest its dramatic airing by the ambassador was intended as a warning that if and when Beijing perceived India's US relationship was impinging on China's interests, it would exercise all its levers, including its border claims, to pin down India.
India's northeastern region, including the neighboring state of Bangladesh and Burma, is quite porous. Some of the region is racked by ethnic tensions and insurgency. Beijing can fish into the troubled waters with political and military support to make things difficult for India.
Even more importantly, it will seek to further bolster up Pakistan as a counter to India's perceived closeness to the US. Hu's Pakistan visit, following his trip to India, was part of the process.
Apart from ongoing cooperation in political and security matters (including nuclear where China helped Pakistan develop its nuclear weapons program), Bei-jing is now planning an extensive economic investment drive in West Punjab -- Pakistan's most populous state on India's border. -- which has India worried.
"For pessimists in New Delhi, the emerging Chinese economic clout in West Punjab would mean Beijing is outflanking India in its own hinterland," said C. Raja Mohan, a prominent Indian commentator on foreign affairs.
"New Delhi, which for years has been so focused on Beijing's military and nuclear partnership with Islamabad will soon have to reckon with the fact that Chinese money might soon rule the roost in its neighborhood," Mohan wrote in the Indian Express.
It is pertinent to note in this connection that not long before the India-China border conflict erupted in 1962, China had warned India, who it thought was a US proxy, that it couldn't fight on two frontiers -- with China and Pakistan. It had been courting Pakistan for some years before that with a view to encircling India.
And now, by further strength-ening its relationship with Pakistan against a backdrop of an emerging close relationship between US and India, Beijing is sending the same sort of message to Delhi. That is, back off or else.
China has never wanted India emerging as a power in its own right, and hence has sought to pin it down in its immediate neighborhood by encouraging and aid-ing its neighbors at odds with New Delhi. And this is what it would do if a US-India strategic equation were to develop momentum.
A prominent Chinese analyst, Shen Dingli (
Writing in an Indian journal, he said, "A Moscow-Delhi-Beijing partnership, if not axis, shall enhance Eurasian stability."
In other words, they would regard India's act of forging close relations with the US as contrary to regional stability. And that would entitle them to work against India.
But it might not work this time because, in the last decade or so, India has developed its own political and economic momentum, transcending some of its internal and external constraints. Its economic growth rate of 8 percent is pretty impressive, and its information technology sector is viewed internationally as a significant development.
Even though China is economically ahead, some experts believe that India might do better in the long run because its development is part of a much more evolved political system with well-established and tested institutions.
China, on the other hand, is a one-party state subject to unforeseen social and political convulsions. And when turbulence occurs, it has virtually no mediatory institutional processes to cushion and eventually defuse the situation.
And in that sort of situation, as we saw during the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, its only recourse is the use of the army to kill its own people. That might have worked once, but the next time around its armed forces might not be that receptive to the idea of murdering their compatriots.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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