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As ties between India and China grow, so does mistrust
Recent border incidents test partnership in trade, climate change

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 2009

NEW DELHI -- On a remote mountain pass, Chinese soldiers berated a group of Indian laborers building a five-mile road near the India-China border. The land belonged to China, asserted the soldiers, who reportedly waved their guns and scared off the workers.

The incident became the biggest breaking news story in India early this month, dominating TV coverage, capturing front-page headlines and igniting fears that the two countries were headed toward a crisis.

In many ways, cooperation between India and China has never been better, officials and observers say. China is India's biggest trading partner, and in the days before the climate summit taking place in Copenhagen, the two agreed on commitments to slow greenhouse gas emissions.

But border disputes are occurring more frequently, analysts say, one sign that a fierce competition between India and China for regional dominance is heating up.

"There is robust trade between the countries. But there is also the sort of tension that is like a series of pinpricks," said Nawang Rigzin, minister of tourism and culture for the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where the road incident took place. "Both countries need to take these pinpricks seriously."

The two Asian giants have been locked in decades of mutual suspicion and lingering disputes over their 2,200-mile border since they fought a short war in 1962, in which China quickly overtook Indian forces. In the past two years, the heightened activity at the border has sparked a fresh round of discord.

"We are destined to be rivals," said Mohan Guruswamy, the New Delhi-based author of the new book "Chasing the Dragon: Will India Catch Up with China?" He added: "This is because of the size of our economies and our geographic proximity to each other."

India has increased its military presence and infrastructure projects along the border, "which from the Chinese side . . . looks threatening, especially when coupled with statements and press reports from India," said M. Taylor Fravel, a specialist on China's border and security issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

China has also beefed up border patrols and development in the area, analysts say, and has spoken out about visits to the disputed frontier by high-level Indian officials.

Chinese cross-border incursions nearly doubled from 140 in 2006 to 270 in 2008 and have stayed at that higher level this year, said Brahma Chellaney of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. "China is breathing down India's neck," he said.

Most analysts say another war between the nuclear-armed countries is unlikely. But the friction reveals an increasingly tortured relationship that experts say will define a new world order as their economies and influence continue to grow.

"Let's keep in mind, not a single shot has been fired on the border," said retired Maj. Gen. Dipankar Banerjee, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. "But there's also a recent realization about the nature of our relationship. As China grows more powerful, so does the anxiety and envy in India."

"Somehow, even workers arguing on the road became big news" in India, said Wu Xiang, who works for a Chinese news agency in New Delhi. "It's a real reflection of how important these tensions are between the two countries."

As India's economy and global standing have grown, China has come to view India as a legitimate threat, said Vikram Sood, a China specialist at the Center for International Relations here.

"In some ways," Sood said, "it's a sign of a more assertive India, and a China trying to flex its military and economic clout."

New alliances

The new alliances each country has made in recent years have contributed to the tensions. China angered India with its "string of pearls" strategy of building ports in Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan that could be used by its navy. And India has watched closely as the Obama administration advocates improved ties with China.

But China is also concerned about India's relations with Washington, and some say there is concern that an India backed by the United States would have more diplomatic clout.

"As a result, China may believe that India will be less likely to reach a compromise agreement in the border dispute and can take a harder line with China," Fravel said.

Since the 1960s, China has sought ties with Pakistan -- India's perennial archrival -- including nuclear cooperation and large-scale weapons sales in recent years.

For its part, China is increasingly critical of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who lives in exile in northern India.

"China and India are very prickly, both hypersensitive, emotional countries," said Jehangir Pocha, who worked in Beijing for three years and is now editor in chief of the Indian NewsX TV channel. "Their power has grown faster than their political maturity."

Fueling fears

Officials on both sides of the border say the Indian media have fueled fears with sensationalistic and often jingoistic reports.

The October road incident along the heavily militarized mountain border was reported weeks after it occurred, when a village leader's written complaint was leaked to Indian news stations and radio talk shows. The media repeatedly emphasized that the confrontation took place just a mile from a September incursion by Chinese soldiers, who painted huge rocks there with Chinese characters.

"It seems everyone wants to exaggerate what appears to be bad news," India's home minister, P. Chidambaram, said in an interview. "But . . . both sides are strong in their desires for a peaceful border."

Some news media outlets have defended their reporting, saying it simply reflects the deep mistrust between the two countries. Chinese and Indian media reports often include a quote from an old Chinese proverb: "Two tigers cannot share the same mountain."

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