They are the two countries tipped to be superpowers – with China being the world’s second largest economy (GDP) and India being the 9th largest economy (GDP). China has a population of 1.3 billion and India has 1.2 billion – together they make up 35% of the world’s total population. They share 4, 057 KM border with one another and yet their physical closeness with one another is the cause of the dispute between the two. The United States South Asia policy fundamentally see India as a regional (but not global or super) power to act as a counterweight to China. However, US policy of prompting India is helping to fuel the longstanding animosity between the two countries.
The ‘official’ borders between China and India were drawn nearly a century ago by the British government of India. The McMahon line as it become known (The Borders) is today regarded by the government of India as the ‘legal’ borders, whereas China openly disputes the borders. It led to open conflict in 1962 when Chinese forces launched strikes against Indian forces, beginning the Sino-Indian war. The key issues for the start of that war and the ongoing tension today are twofold. Firstly, large segments of Chinese claimed territories such as Arunachal Pradesh are on the Indian side of the border. Pradesh was agreed to be on the Indian side of the border by the British and Tibetan governments (before China annexed Tibet in 1950).
In 1959, the Tibetans stage a revolt against Chinese rule and the Dalai Lama goes into exile in India. The fact that the Tibetan leadership chose to go into exile in India led the Chinese to suspect an Indian hand in fermenting unrest. Increased Indian militarisation led China to suspect India of expansionalism. These two factors led to the 1962 war, which killed 722 people and neither side won.
China feels vulnerable in Tibet as India feels vulnerable in Kashmir; a contrast in poor relations between India and China is the warm relations between Pakistan and China. Pakistan and China enjoy a very close relationship which takes on economic and military characteristics. China currently gives Pakistan $500 million in economic aid yearly; they also helped Pakistan to develop its nuclear programme which included selling blueprints for nuclear reactors.
Pakistan is also a potential land route for Iranian gas to reach China and more importantly, important trading and naval ports on Pakistan’s coastline. Following the death of Osama Bin Laden, Pakistan green lighted the selling of Gwadar Port in Baluchistan to the Chinese. The port is strategically important as it gives Chinese traders and the Chinese Navy access to the Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf and the all important Strait of Hormuz, which 20-40% of the world’s energy reserves pass through.
Chinese expansionalism is alarming to those in power in Washington as the Chinese are threatening American power in the Asia region. By the same token, China is an important financier of America and thus the United States cannot afford open confrontation. Thus, India becomes a strategically important ally for the United States. The US does not want India to attack China; it wants India to become a powerful regional counter-weight to China, thus balancing Chinese power against Indian power.
When the Burmese uprising happened in 2007, the United States tried to get India to intervene militarily into Burma. The Burmese regime was seen as an important Chinese ally and the sudden uprising seemed to threaten Chinese power. However, India was unable to intervene, as to move large number of troops into Burma means removing troops from Kashmir leaving India exposed to potential Pakistani attacks. An even greater fear for India is that Kashmir may try to declare independence, were they to leave.
A dangerous mix
The US’s policy of trying to balance China and India in an attempt to retain its own power is potentially dangerous. China and India already had longstanding tensions, and the US since the 90’s has tried to exploit these tensions. The trouble is exploiting rather than helping to resolve these tensions is only making the security situation worse. A few weeks ago this tension reached fever pitch both being temporarily dismantled. In Indian-controlled Kashmir, near the city of Ladakh, Indian forces were building up a military presences in response to Chinese build up in Aksai Chin (Chinese controlled Kashmir). The two sides accused each other of trying to provoke a war. In the end they managed to come to an agreement and pull back forces from troublesome border frontiers. But this incident shows just how dangerous the tension can be.