The Myth of Economic Complementarity in Sino-Indian Relations

By Huang, Yasheng | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Myth of Economic Complementarity in Sino-Indian Relations


Huang, Yasheng, Journal of International Affairs


It is now a part of conventional wisdom that both China and India are emerging economic, political and even military powers in the 21st century. Terms such as "BRIC" and "Chindia," and phrases such as "not China or India, but China and India" have entered popular discourse and policy discussions. Such terms imply a synergistic relationship between China and India--an implication that belies the tension that has characterized Sino-Indian relations for centuries. My view is less sanguine than many others' about the prospects of their relations. Relations between the two countries will be fraught with difficulties and will likely remain fragile. Conflict and competitiveness are deeply rooted in historical and structural causes, while forces for harmony are more contingent on political will cultural understanding and careful policy management. There are several areas in which their relations can go wrong. At a fundamental level, the two countries are in an economically competitive, not a complementary, relationship with each other. Their economic and social endowments are similar (as compared with China/U.S. or India/U.S.). India and China offer very different lessons about economic policies and growth. This is not to suggest that the two countries are headed toward an inevitable collision, but to identify the urgency of carefully managing their relations and nurturing trust and goodwill on both sides.

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One of the most memorable terms that has emerged together with the emergence of China and India as economic powers is "Chindia." The credit apparently goes to Jairam Ramesh, who, as the Indian minister of state for environment and forests, gave the concept an apparent official imprimatur, (1) Premier Wen Jiabao also emphasized the complementary aspects of Sino-Indian relations in his 2010 trip to India. He had some tangible proof--the trip resulted in commercial agreements valued at $16 billion. (2)

Beneath these official pleasantries, however, there are some underlying tensions. According to press reports, the Chinese delegation sought help from the Indian government to clamp down on what the Chinese viewed as excessively negative coverage of China in the Indian press--a request the Indian government politely declined on the grounds of press freedom. (3) Zhang Yan, the Chinese envoy to India, was quoted as saying that "China-India relations are very fragile and very easy to be damaged and very difficult to repair. Therefore, they need special care in the information age." (4)

The idea of "Chindia" conjures the image of two fast-growing Asian giants united by their common challenges and their recent economic success. The term suggests that these commonalities are sufficiently powerful to overcome the weight of history--most notably, the Sino-Indian War of 1962. In fact, Zhang Yan's assessment of Sino-Indian relations is more accurate than those offered in official speeches by Jairam Ramesh and Wen Jiabao. Deep historical and structural forces will keep cooperation between the two countries at bay, and forces for harmony are more contingent upon political will, cultural understanding and careful policy management. It is not the claim here that the two countries will inevitably head toward collision. Rather, it is my contention that relations between the two countries will be fraught with difficulties and are, and will likely remain, fragile in the sense that Zhang Yan conveyed.

Increased engagement between China and India has brought the border issues back to the fore rather than relegating them to the dustbin of history. Both countries claim sovereignty over two pieces of territory. One is Aksai Chin, located in the Indian province of Kashmir or the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The other is referred to as Arunachal Pradesh by India and South Tibet by China. In 1987, the two countries came close to another clash, but things calmed in 1993 when the two countries signed a treaty to ensure peace over disputed areas and introduced an interesting concept called the Line of Actual Control (LAC). …

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