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Nathu La

China and India’s relationship alternates between friendly and volatile. New Delhi-based expert on China-India relations Dr. Swaran Singh gives his opinion on where it is headed.

Apart from sharing a 4,000-kilometer border, what else do China and India have in common? A lot, if you ask Dr. Swaran Singh. They are the two largest, fastest-growing, and most dynamic societies today.

They are also the newest emerging powerhouses, not just in the Asian region, but in the world.

You don’t have to look far for proof. The word processor and the other software running in your PC are, most likely, designed by Indian programmers. That cellular phone you just used to call the wife to say you’ll be home late probably came from a Chinese factory in Suzhou Industrial Park.

What’s War Got to Do With It?

After their border war in 1962, both the Beijing and New Delhi governments grew leery of each other. This still holds true today as India is still suspicious over China’s ties with Pakistan. China, in turn, has never been comfortable with India granting the Dalai Lama political asylum. (The Tibetan spiritual leader crossed the Himalayas and fled to India in 1959 to escape the fierce Chinese crackdown.)

So what exactly are these two countries doing to each other? One good way to examine this, Singh explained, was to look at trade. Because India didn’t want its small South Asian neighbors to get too cozy with China, it jumped into the trade bandwagon long dominated by the likes of Pakistan and Bangladesh. India eventually eased them out and became China’s top trading partner within a decade. In 2004, India accounted for almost 70% of the region’s trade with Beijing.

Singh, who is in Manila on a fellowship hosted by the University of the Philippines Asian Center, said the two have been maintaining a balanced trade over the years. Unlike the China-Maldives trade relation for instance, which is one-sided and heavily in favor of China, Sino-Indian trade is on an even keel. China’s exports to and imports from India are never far from each other. And there, according to Singh, is where the two countries’ fundamental and collective strength lies.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

If balanced trade is their fundamental strength, then their border dispute has to be China and India’s fundamental weakness. The two countries have been exchanging goods via sea and air for so long when they could have been easily moving products across contested boundaries using land vehicles. The row over that big patch of glaciers and forests stretched across the Himalayan mountains have kept them from cashing in on an even bigger potential trade windfall.

Little wonder then that the two nations have yet to take the next natural step towards more significant economic cooperation, which is the infusion of Chinese investments in India and vice versa. But all that could change. In 2005, China and India signed an agreement aimed at ending the border feud. China has also given up its claim over the landlocked state of Sikkim in the Himalayas, which was annexed by India in 1975.

Fearless Forecast

Dr. Singh has high hopes the border issues will be settled. It is too dangerous to start a shooting war now as both sides could suffer huge economic losses. He predicted the rapid growth rates posted by the two countries will continue, and India will soon catch up with China’s economic miracle.

China might have problems sustaining its growth as it is a graying society, he explained. India, on the other hand, is still young. Soon, the next generation of political leaders in both countries will hold power. Young technocrats are finding space in parliament, he said, slowly loosening the hold on power of the gray- haired set.

The two Asian giants would also have to tackle emerging issues brought about by increasing economic activities, such as increased traffic and the physical congestion of sea lanes (like the Malacca Straits). Maritime security, specifically terrorism problems, would also be a major concern.

Their continued prosperity could also lead to many new challenges—like an ever ballooning energy deficit. Singh pointed out that there is no cooperation between Beijing and New Delhi on this issue. While India is working with the US, China has been busy talking to leaders of various oil-rich countries in Africa, he said.

In the end, according to Singh, one can never really paint a detailed picture of what the coming 50 years would be like for both China and India based solely on the understanding of the last 50 years. “Change is happening so fast.” But he said there is one thing we can be sure of. “They would be distinct players in the world economy.”

Singh predicted the rise in Sino-Indian trade will continue in the coming years. The trend not only shows the two countries are on good economic terms, he explained, but also that they don’t want to pull each other down. Still, there are uncertainties. “Last time we were friends, we ended up in war,” Singh said. “Will it be different this time?” Time will tell.

print ed: 1/08


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