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Contested Border: China, India, and the Asian Century

Author:  Felix K. Chang
September 24, 2014

Contested Border: China, India, and the Asian Century

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to India last week was supposed to have breathed new life into ties between Asia’s two giants, China and India.  It was the first visit to India by a Chinese president in eight years.  Many hoped it would reboot what was once heralded as the “Asian Century.”  Implicit in that hope was the belief that good relations between the two countries would have to develop to realize the potential of such a century.  On that score, Xi assured his host, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that China believed its neighbors would be vital to its wellbeing, after all “a warlike state, however big it may be, will eventually perish.”

That assurance was needed, because during Xi’s visit to India, Chinese troops twice crossed into territory that India claims as its own.  One incident began near Chumar about a week before Xi’s arrival.  Chinese forces brought heavy construction equipment and workers into the area with the intention to build a new road there.  Indian troops confronted them and a standoff ensued.  Meanwhile, another incident developed at nearby Demchok, where over a hundred Chinese nomads gathered to protest India’s construction of an irrigation canal that they believed was on Chinese soil.  Thirty Chinese soldiers accompanied the protesters.  Local Indian authorities dispatched 70 border policemen to the scene.  That created a second standoff.  Both then escalated during Xi’s visit.  At their height, about 800 Chinese troops and 1,500 Indian troops were deployed to the areas.  No doubt, the incidents gave Modi something to talk about with Xi during their time together.

China India Asian Century - Border Dispute over Chumar and Demchok

In public, however, Modi and Xi tried to downplay the border incidents.  For Modi, the visit was a chance to attract Chinese investment into Indian infrastructure and manufacturing projects.  For China, it was an opportunity to pry India away from the overtures of Japan and the United States.  A number of agreements were signed.  The two sides agreed to jointly study improving India’s railway system, ease the trade imbalance between them, and cooperate on developing a new economic corridor through South Asia.  China pledged that it would invest $20 billion into India over the next five years, of which $6.8 billion would go into building two new industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra.  In a speech at the end of his visit, Xi contended that “only when the China-India relationship develops, will a real ‘Asian Century’ emerge.”

Nevertheless, many issues still split the two countries.  Their disputed border is only one of them, albeit a particularly thorny one.  In the first nine months of 2014, India recorded 344 Chinese border incursions.  Seventeen rounds of negotiations between the two governments since the 1990s have done little to settle the issue.  But even without the border dispute, there were still other instances of friction between the two countries in just the last week that would have taken some of the shine off of Xi’s visit.

On September 15, India agreed to extend to Vietnam a $100 million export credit for defense equipment that Hanoi has been busily acquiring to counter China.  As if that was not enough, India’s state-owned national energy company, OGNC, signed an agreement with its Vietnamese counterpart, PetroVietnam, to expand their cooperation in oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, most of which China claims as its maritime territory.  That prompted China’s foreign ministry to warn India against entering into any deals that infringe on China’s territorial claims in those waters.

Similarly, India remains suspicious of Chinese intentions regarding its neighbors in South Asia.  Over the last decade, China has financed and built a string of major port and airport infrastructure projects in places like Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar.  Now, China has announced its “Maritime Silk Road” initiative in the region, which echoes its “New Silk Road” effort in Central Asia.  Indeed, prior to arriving in India, Xi was pushing the new initiative in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.  India has naturally grown concerned that China might challenge it as the dominant power in the region.  Last week, the Maldives only fanned those concerns when it gave a highly lucrative contract to manage its international airport to a Chinese company, after taking it away from an Indian one in 2010.

During Xi’s visit, Modi suggested that their two countries should put the past behind them.  Unfortunately, the present looks little better than the past.  The twenty-first century may well be remembered as an Asian one.  But one should not assume that an “Asian Century” will necessarily lead to prosperity and renewal, as Xi implied.  Europe dominated the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Both were known as much for the conflicts and rivalries among European powers as for their economic development.

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