Himalayan histrionics

Asia’s two giants still cannot agree where one stops and the other begins

Published on The Economist, October 29, 2009.

IF THIS is to be Asia’s century, a small prerequisite is that its two rising powers rub along together. Yet recent bonding between China and India has turned to repulsion. Breathless Indian commentary talks of irreconcilable rivalry, even future conflict. As for the Chinese, few had bothered much about India. The superiority of China’s economic and political models was taken as read. That makes an October editorial on the website of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, all the more striking. 

The editorial cranked out insults not levelled in decades. India’s superpower dreams, it said, might appear to be justified. But they are mingled “with the thought of hegemony”. This was setting India on the road to “repeated failure”. Damnable, too, was India’s policy of “befriending the far and attacking the near”. Indian hegemony, the editorial decided, was “100% the result of British colonialism”, when the Raj ruled from Pakistan to Burma. Now, the victim was trying to out-empire even the British …

… Seize the hour:

Hence the People’s Daily’s strong words. China may feel that now is a good time to get a border settlement on its terms. After all, India grows economically stronger by the day. And recent signs of American readiness to appease China will have encouraged China to think that America will not do much to back India. Before his first trip to China as president in mid-November, Barack Obama declined to meet the Dalai Lama in Washington. China’s polemics are also designed to resonate with India’s smaller neighbours, who have their own gripes about its overbearing style. They also enjoy China’s material support. The part of the former kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, for example, is criss-crossed with Chinese infrastructure projects.

In recent days both China and India have called for cool heads and warm hearts. A former Chinese ambassador to India blamed all the two countries’ serious differences on the Indian media. In Thailand on October 24th Mr Singh and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao even made common cause on climate change, before December’s Copenhagen summit. Yet as with earlier alliances over global trade talks, this looks like a tactical marriage in the face of rich-country demands. As for whether India and China can bury the hatchet over the border: that depends as much on China’s understanding of its internal threats as on its robust, sometimes rabid, southern neighbour. (full text).

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