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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

David Malone

India's and China's uncomfortable dance Add to ...

Asia's weight in the global economy is rising fast and military capabilities in the region are increasing too.

A poll of Canadians conducted in February of this year, on which The Globe and Mail reported extensively reveals most Canadians seemingly both disengaged from and cool toward much of Asia.

China, Japan and India are the heavy hitters. Indonesia and South Korea are also significant, as is, in the Pacific area, Australia. But given Japan's economic stagnation over the past two decades and its unpromising demographic trends, most Asians see China and India as the principal rivals for influence in the region. The United States, through its unique geo-strategic reach, also remains a major actor in Asia.

India's emergence from decades of disappointing economic performance following its independence, and the acceleration of its growth after liberalizing reforms in the early 1990s, adds an important new factor to the Asian equation.

Relevant also to all of Asia is India's historic significance, imprinted across the continent through the spread of Buddhism, Hinduism, Indian trading communities and wider cultural influences, most evident in the dynamism of Bollywood. Its rambunctious democracy is widely admired, although questioning of the probity of some of its politicians is too frequently in the spotlight.

Its current demographics, with a population of 1.2 billion, most of it young, add to its potential. In spite of continuing widespread poverty, India, like China, had attained sufficient economic momentum and resiliency to breeze through the recent global economic crisis.

They are not equals: China launched economic reforms in the late 1970s following the death of Mao Zedong, more than a decade before India followed suit. It occupies territory three times the size of India's and its economic wealth is over three times greater, both in absolute terms and per capita. But demographic factors and others may slow China somewhat in decades ahead while India could speed ahead.

China has been a much greater preoccupation for New Delhi than has any partner in the West, including the U.S., with which India has recently much improved its relationship through an agreement on nuclear co-operation. Although independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, cultivated the new Communist leadership of China in the early 1950s, the relationship soon soured. A brief border war in 1962, which India decisively lost, left New Delhi anxious about the future of its ties with a China then as now allied to India's most constant regional antagonist, Pakistan.

Tibet overhangs the relationship just as it overhangs the map of India. New Delhi acquiesced in China's military takeover of Tibet in 1950, but offered refuge to the Dalai Lama when he fled Tibet in 1959 and still does today. A previous Dalai Lama in 1913 returned to Lhasa from India after the collapse of the Qing dynasty, which had defeated him several years earlier. Beijing clearly does not discount the support the Dalai Lama still enjoys among Tibetans.

Although China provided strong military and economic support to Pakistan from the mid-1950s onwards, Pakistani adventurism (in triggering a controlled but dangerous border war at Kargil in 1999), and the presence of terrorists operating internationally out of its territory, have inspired a more prudent stance by Beijing that encourages negotiated solutions to the tensions between India and Pakistan.

Nevertheless, Indian unease about Chinese designs in its neighbourhood, fuelled by minor mutual provocations generally dispelled by the passage of time and by quiet diplomacy, remains strong in spite of rapidly expanding trade links, with China today India's largest trading partner. China's close ties with the Burmese junta and with resurgent Sri Lanka, its improving relations with Nepal and Bangladesh and its continuing close links with Pakistan create in India a sense of "encirclement."

China, a much larger country with more neighbours, does not experience as much anxiety about India. But the regional influence and growing weight of India, together with the strong regional role of India's new friend, the United States, could combine to create in Beijing a sense of vulnerability. Both China and India are investing heavily in their navies.

Thus, India and China are engaged in an uncomfortable dance with each other. Their economic interests, the strongest driver of the foreign policy of each, encourage co-operation, but a degree of competition is inevitable. Meanwhile, nervous countries in Southeast Asia, dismayed by China's strong-arm tactics during a brief clash with Japan last year, are only too happy to see the rise of another Asian power that China cannot cow.

Both China and India have given priority to their struggle for economic development. Each has been a prudent regional actor over the past several decades, and a degree of strategic restraint by each seems likely, even though China's recent sharper tone has disconcerted neighbours. The continent and the rest of the globe are large enough to accommodate the peaceful rise of both. And the military capacity of each, including nuclear weapons, diminishes the likelihood of serious aggression by the other.

What happens over coming decades in Asia, as its geopolitics undergo tectonic shifts, could affect us all, not least by either enhancing or disrupting international trade and hence our prosperity. And war in Asia, among nuclear-weapons states, would be catastrophic globally, for Canadians as for others. The continent will require close study and will reward serious engagement in decades to come.

David M. Malone, a former Canadian envoy to the UN and to India, is president of Canada's International Development Research Centre. His book Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy appears in Canada this month.

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