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China, India Announce New Partnership

  • Leta Fincher

China and India recently announced a new strategic partnership. The two Asian powers have long regarded each other with suspicion, and analysts say a rapprochement could have far-reaching consequences.

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in New Delhi recently, he said that India and China together can reshape the world order.

Analysts agree that if it holds together, the new partnership between the longtime rivals could affect the global balance of power.

"Rising powers have usually been very disruptive on the international scene and their rise has frequently led to wars. That would be a very bad outcome and both China and India are rising powers," Ms. Schaffer says.

Teresita Schaffer is head of the South Asian program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Ms. Schaffer says that neither India nor China will consider the other a permanent ally. But for the moment, their relationship is one of cooperation rather than competition.

"If they're able to manage their rise peacefully, vis-à-vis one another, and vis-à-vis their other neighbors in Asia, this is basically good news for the system," she says.

India and China together make up more than a third of the world's population. They are two of the world's fastest growing economies. Trade between them has increased dramatically in recent years to more than $13 billion in 2004. And they have pledged to boost that figure to $20 billion by 2008.

But in past decades, a number of issues have strained relations between India and China. In 1962, they fought a border war in the Himalayan Mountains, which China won. Since then, the Indians have regarded their giant neighbor with suspicion.

India has given refuge to Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, since China's crackdown on Tibet in 1959. And India continues to be wary of China's close ties and arms transfers to Pakistan.

When India tested its nuclear weapons in 1998, the defense minister called China India's number one enemy.

Against this backdrop, analysts say the rapprochement between India and China marks a dramatic shift in relations.

Ms. Schaffer says one of the most significant outcomes of the recent China-India summit was a commitment to try to settle long-standing border disputes.

"They used language describing their hopes for settling the border issue that went much farther than anything I've seen before. So it suggests a willingness not just to let the economic ties expand, but also to work more actively on this very political dimension of the border dispute," Ms. Schaffer says.

Some argue that China's recent overtures to India are motivated by a concern that the United States is seeking to build up India's power in the region.

Evan Medeiros, a China scholar at the RAND Corporation research group in Washington D.C., says China is particularly worried about a recent U-S pledge to sell F-16 fighter planes to India.

"I think the Chinese see this as one more step in America's effort to kind of create a strategic hedge against China as it rises in the future. And I think the Chinese are trying to engage the Indians to prevent them from falling into the American orbit," Evan Medeiros says.

Mr. Medeiros says that despite the fanfare, there is still little substance to China's new partnership with India. As a goodwill gesture, however, China announced it is abandoning its claim to the tiny Himalayan province of Sikkim, acknowledging that it is a part of India.

"It was a cost-free gesture that I think provided some degree of momentum to China's rapprochement with India. It clearly indicates that the Chinese are serious about this, but whether or not they're going to be willing to make the hard decisions that are associated with negotiating the border disputes and, in particular, moderating some of their arms sales to Pakistan is still unclear," he says.

Analysts say that mutual distrust and rivalry will continue to underlie ties between China and India for some time. But relations now are better than they have been in decades, and analysts say that is a welcome development.

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