US, China try to woo India

Scott Baldauf:

Like the prettiest girl at a fairy-tale ball or in a Bollywood movie, India suddenly has lots of suitors calling.

A week after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to India, talking of India’s growing strategic and economic importance on the global stage, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will make his first-ever visit to New Delhi with virtually the same message. In talks starting Saturday, China and India aim to resolve 43-year-old boundary disputes and set the stage for a growing cooperation on trade and security issues.

Yet beneath the surface of this seeming popularity, there is a larger game at work. Neither the US nor China can afford to ignore a growing regional player like India, or to have it working directly against them. Beijing in particular has reason to be wary of Delhi, as the US courts India to be a counterweight to a rising China. But many Indian officials and scholars say the future of Indo-Chinese relations may be less competitive and aimed more at allowing each other to grow.

Nobody expects India and China to return to the days of “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai”, the Hindi slogan used during the 1962 visit of China’s Vice Premier Zhou Enlai to Delhi. That visit was followed by a brief invasion by Chinese forces into Indian territory, an event that soured Indian and Chinese relations for nearly four decades. This visit aims both at resolving some boundary disputes, and restoring some lost trust.

After decades of advocating Tibetan independence, India now accepts Chinese control of Tibet, much to the chagrin of thousands of Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala. China, for its part, has recently accepted Indian control of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. What remains to be sorted out are China’s occupation of Aksai Chin, a 16,500 square mile chunk of Kashmir, and India’s control of Arunachal Pradesh, a 35,000 square mile province in India’s northeast.

Yet despite such good words, there are many reasons for China and India to view each other as rivals rather than friends. China has long maintained a close military and strategic partnership with Pakistan, India’s nuclear rival. Just days before his visit to China, Wen signed a series of deals with Pakistan, including a plan to manufacture a jointly designed fighter aircraft called the JF-17. This announcement came just days after India announced its intention to buy F-16 and F-18 fighters from the US, including technology that allows India to produce F-16s itself.

More worrisome to Chinese negotiators this week may be the Indian-US plan for India to send its Navy to patrol the Straits of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia, a crucial shipping lane. China has long considered Southeast Asia to be its own backyard.

It was in this context that China’s ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, warned against India becoming too closely aligned with the US.

But the key to “superpowerdom” is pure economics. China’s economic prosperity has been restricted to the southern coast, while its populated central and western provinces have lagged behind. As such, China has been hammering out numerous deals with its neighbours in South Asia. Most visible are two major highway projects: the Kodari highway through Nepal, which should be ready by 2008; and a similar highway through Burma to the Bay of Bengal.

India, too, has gone on a building spree, developing an East-West trade corridor called the Tamu-Kalleva highway, from its north-eastern province of Manipur through Myanmar and into Thailand. The motive, like China’s, is to spur development in a cut-off region where disaffection is rising. — The Christian Science Monitor