But already India and China are squabbling again, and their frontier is the flash point.
A visit by India’s defense minister to a border state claimed by China, accompanied by a fly-past by fighter jets recently stationed in the area, provoked some frosty advice from Beijing not to “complicate” matters. In return, the Indian defense minister, A.K. Antony, called China’s comments “most unfortunate” and “really objectionable.”
The spat, experts say, is a symptom of a deterioration in relations that began in 2005, as India drew closer to the United States and negotiated a civil nuclear cooperation agreement.
That new alignment appeared to threaten Beijing and set relations with India on a downward spiral — so much so that India’s multibillion-dollar military-modernization plans are now largely directed toward containing the growing threat from China.
“Ever since the U.S. nuclear deal in 2005, relations with China have been going through a turbulent time,” said Brahma Chellaney at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “Nothing has changed in recent months to suggest that turbulence is easing or subsiding. What we are seeing actually is that Chinese state media is taking an increasingly hard line.”
At the heart of the tension lies a seemingly intractable border dispute that erupted into a brief war in 1962.
China claims the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a thickly forested, mountainous region that shares cultural links with Tibet. India contests China’s occupation of a barren plateau in Kashmir, far to the west.
In 2005, the two sides agreed to respect “settled populations” in any final deal, suggesting that they might one day agree to accept the status quo. But soon after the U.S.-India nuclear agreement was signed, the backsliding began.
China took every opportunity to reassert its claim to Arunachal, which it refers to as Southern Tibet. Sensing that there was no longer any hope of a deal, India hardened its position, too.
The extent of the deterioration in relations was underlined this week when a team of Indian foreign policy experts and former senior officials warned that India needed to be better prepared in case China decided to assert its territorial claims by force.
“There is the possibility that China might resort to territorial grabs,” they wrote in a major review of Indian foreign policy, saying China probably would aim to occupy “bite-sized” chunks of land along the ill-defined frontier. “We cannot also entirely dismiss the possibility of a major military offensive in Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh [Kashmir].”
In January, China denied a visa to an Indian air force officer who comes from the state and was due to visit Beijing as part of an Indian military delegation. New Delhi responded by canceling the entire trip.