Apr 12, 2013

Is world big enough for India, China?

This week is “Indian Water Week,” with New Delhi emphasizing efficient water management amid concern that China's construction of three dams on the Yarlung Zangbo River — the name of the Brahmaputra in Tibet — may reduce the flow of water into India. 

The Indian government has tried to allay public apprehension by repeating assurances offered by the Chinese that they are only constructing run-of-the-river hydropower projects that will not divert the Brahmaputra's waters.

The issue was raised by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he met the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Durban, South Africa.

The Indian leader asked China to set up a mechanism so that the two countries can jointly assess Chinese construction projects on the Brahmaputra, which originates in the Himalayas. Xi said that China would consider the proposal.

India wants to be consulted before China makes such construction decisions. However, it was not even given advance notice of the three dams and found out about the projects only after the Chinese government announced that they had been approved.

China and India are the world's two most populous countries and their relationship has been characterized by frequent high-level meetings. Over the last decade, Prime Minister Singh has met over 10 times each with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, China's president and prime minister, respectively, until last month.

Such frequent meetings are likely to continue. The Indian leader has been invited to visit China by his new Chinese counterpart, Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

Chinese officials like to describe China and India as “partners in win-win cooperation, not rivals in competition.”

However, Singh more candidly told Indian reporters accompanying him that the relationship “has elements of coordination, cooperation and competition.”

One arena of competition is Africa, where the two leaders met. China is substantially ahead, with US$198 billion in trade, but India is a big player also, with US$33 billion.

Last year, when the Indian leader talked about a “new era in African-Indian relations,” he pointedly said that India “wanted to employ local labor,” a clear allusion to China's much criticized policy of bringing its own workers to Africa.

In the latest Chinese-Indian summit, Xi said the world was big enough for both countries to develop, and added that China regarded ties with India as one of its most important bilateral relationships. Prime Minister Singh, meanwhile, assured China that India would not be used as a tool to contain China.

He added that Tibetans in India would not be allowed to conduct activities against China. Despite such mutual pledges of good will, suspicions linger and may well be growing.

On Sunday, the Hindustan Times, citing a classified Indian defense ministry document, said an increasing number of Chinese submarines venturing into the Indian Ocean posed a grave danger to India's security interests. 

This bolsters Indian fears that China is developing a “string of pearls” at ports in countries along India's periphery, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

New Delhi feels increasingly hemmed in by Beijing, which has developed close relations with virtually all of India's neighbors.

Interestingly, Xi said at the meeting with Singh that the two countries should strive for a resolution of their border dispute which is acceptable to both sides. This is not something that China has said to Japan, with which it also has a territorial dispute regarding islands in the East China Sea.

China and India have been trying to develop a relationship of trust. When India in December signed a big contract to buy Russian weapons, the Chinese foreign ministry indicated it had no concerns.

“China welcomes the development of friendly relations between Russia and India, which we hope and believe will be conducive to peace and stability of Asia and the world at large,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Presumably because the Chinese have a close relationship with Russia, they said “we hope and believe” that improved Indian-Russian relations would be conducive to stability.

The Chinese government chooses its words carefully and it is worth noting that when commenting on relations between India and Vietnam, the words chosen were different.

Asked about Vietnam's suggestion that India play a bigger role on the South China Sea issue, the Chinese Foreign Ministry commented: “We hope that the cooperation between India and ASEAN will be conducive to regional peace, stability and development.” The word “believe” was missing, instead they simply “hope.” China, clearly, is not enthusiastic about India playing a bigger role in the South China Sea.


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