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The relationship between India and China has basically been unfriendly since the late 1950s. Even when the direct relationship between the two has been quiet, China has helped Pakistan acquire mass-destruction and conventional weapons for no purpose other than to undermine India. In the last few months, the direct relationship became tenser.

China has claimed the territory of Arunachal Pradesh since the 1950s. However, that claim was made with restraint until a few years ago. China has offered in the past to give up its claim to Arunachal Pradesh if India gave up its claims to Aksai Chin in the Kashmir area. In the last two years, China has begun to assert its claim to Arunachal Pradesh more stridently. China considers that territory to be part of Tibet, and thus part of China. The people of Arunachal have much cultural commonality with Tibetans, as do other Himalayan ethnicities. There is an ancient Buddhist monastery there of considerable religious significance to Tibetans. India holds that Arunachal has a mixed culture and has always been a distinct territory from Tibet.

As China has made more statements asserting its claim on Arunachal Pradesh and built up military infrastructure across the border from the state, India has become increasingly alarmed. This summer India moved an additional 60,000 soldiers into the state. So far, China has not responded with similar troop movements. However, it does appear that China has been attempting to restrict Indian actions in the state through verbal intimidation. In October 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to Arunachal Pradesh and gave a speech supporting his party during the state elections there. The Chinese government described the Prime Minister’s action as “provocative” and warned India to be careful not to trigger a border incident; a bizarre statement given that an election speech by the Prime Minister has no direct bearing on military relations between India and China.

The Dalai Lama has long wished to visit the monastery in Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian government has prevented him from doing so to avoid angering China. However, as China began to assert its claim more to the territory more vigorously, the Indian government decided it needed to make the point that India was the sovereign power in Arunachal. Delhi decided to allow the Dalai Lama to visit the historic Buddhist monastery in Arunachal’s capital Tawang. This was a symbolic action specifically directed against China.

In October and November there were meetings between Manmohan Singh and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and between the foreign ministers of the two countries. In mid-November, the Dalai Lama did visit the monastery in Tawang. The Chinese statements about the visit have been less threatening than those about the Prime Minister’s election speech a month earlier. The foreign ministers announced that disagreements between the two countries should not impede progress of other issues. This marks a return to the earlier understanding between the two countries. There appears to have been a shift toward greater restraint in Chinese policy regarding the territorial dispute after the high-level meetings. This occurred despite, or perhaps because of, India’s determination to let the Dalai Lama visit Tawang. Once it became apparent that a diplomatically threatening posture toward India would not produce the desired results, the posture shifted.

In the last thirty years, China has raced ahead economically. Its 2008 GDP, measured using American prices (Purchasing Power Parity), amounted to 56% of America’s. Such progress has produced a new self-confidence in China. While India has progressed less than China, it has not stood still. Its 2008 purchasing power GDP stood at 24% of America’s, and 42% of China’s. This alone makes India a great power. The diplomatic tussle over the disputed border may have driven the point home in the right quarters in China.

Until the 1980s, China pursued a high-risk foreign policy. China engaged and pushed back the U.S. army in Korea in 1950. It was China that took the more aggressive stance toward the superpower U.S.S.R in the 1960s. China initiated a war against India in 1962 after losing 20 million people in a famine two years earlier, and saw fit to help Pakistan get nuclear weapons in the early 1980s while at the same economic level as India. However, towards the 1980s, China’s foreign policy became low-risk. Its recent aggressiveness toward India reflects an assessment that India was so weak that the risk was low. Ultranationalist newspapers in China taunted India for its weakness over the last summer. It is possible that a more mature assessment of India has now emerged in China.

Both Chinese and Indian leaders have now proclaimed that the world is big enough for both countries. This is true, as the world is now genuinely multi-polar. In 2008 there were ten countries, including Mexico, with purchasing power GDP a tenth or more of the United States. The notion of India and China locked together in a power struggle makes no sense. Both must take into account several other emerging powers.Both India and China are attending closely to the United States. Obama’s recent visit to China demonstrated China’s new strength as it did not bend to American demands. Nonetheless, China’s current economic strategy requires America to embark on yet another round of massive borrowing to support China’s exports. America does not wish to do that, and cannot. A trade confrontation is brewing. Manmohan Singh will visit America in late November. The issues will be more security-related than economic. India will have to maneuver in the  ranks of lesser global powers and keep the way clear for ascent in the future.

Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.

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