NEW DELHI — Fifty years after India and China fought a brief war, the Asian giants have set aside their bitter decades-long rivalry and trade is booming. But, the strategic contest between the two countries is far from over, and many in India view China as no less a threat than its other rival, Pakistan.
1962 border war
Officials in New Delhi have largely ignored the anniversary of the brief border war fought with China in 1962 in the high Himalayan mountains. That is not surprising - five decades ago, China inflicted a humiliating defeat on India.
But on the sidelines of a conference, India’s defense minister said that his country is not the same as it was in 1962 and its military can now defend every inch of India.
Political analysts say the comment underscores that the 1962 conflict still casts a shadow on relations between the Asian neighbors, although bilateral ties are improving.
"There is certainly a psychological impact still very much obvious, but it has not impeded the growth of the relationship," said Alka Acharya, a professor of Chinese Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Over the last decade particularly, an attempt has been made to if not entirely forget the past, at least let the bygones or let the contentious issue be set aside and let the relationship develop."
The two countries have made strides in their political relationship. And economic ties are booming - China is now India’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade at $75 billion.
However the two nations have made little headway in resolving their 4,000-km boundary dispute despite tortuous negotiations. And mutual mistrust lingers, especially as the two growing powers emerge as competitors for more influence and resources in Asia.
For example, China reacted strongly to a recent effort by India to search for oil in the South China Sea. And India is uneasy with growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean as Beijing builds ports and infrastructure in neighboring countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
China has apprehensions about the presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile in India. New Delhi on the other hand is suspicious of the friendly relations between China and India’s other rival, Pakistan.
Still a challenge
Uday Bhaskar, a strategic analyst with the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi, says China remains an "abiding" challenge for India.
"There is an undercurrent of what I would describe as prickliness and apprehension about the other. And also a deeply held feeling in India that China is not very comfortable with the rise of India and seeks to contain it. Most deeply held is India’s anxiety about China’s strategic cooperation with Pakistan particularly as far as nuclear weapons and missiles are concerned. It is the way China seeks to either contain or encourage a third party like Pakistan to act in a manner that is adversarial to India’s core interest," said Bhaskar.
Analysts say India’s heavy spending on military hardware in recent years is prompted as much by the need to counter China as it is Pakistan. New Delhi is also beefing up military infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh, the eastern state which China claims, and where the 1962 war was fought. It is building a new highway to ease troop movements and raising four new military divisions for the frontier.
Closer economic ties
However, analysts say that the peace that has prevailed along their disputed border is likely to continue as both countries with a population of a billion plus and ambitions to play a larger role on the global stage focus on growing their economies.
Alka Acharya says that over the next decade economic ties are likely to strengthen further.
“There are larger and larger communities, specially the trading communities in India which are also looking at China as an opportunity and the increase in trade which is happening at the middle and lower level is quite remarkable. The number of traders who are going, buying goods, selling them. China’s own growing footprint on the Indian economic scenario in terms of Chinese companies coming, Chinese investments," said Acharya.
Indian officials are also optimistic that there will be enough room for both countries to grow in Asia without brushing up against each other.