NEW DELHI (AFP) ― The theme of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India was “friends not rivals,” but a border dispute remains a source of tension and, analysts warn, potential conflict between the Asian giants.
The joint communiqu that concluded Wen’s recent visit barely mentioned the long-standing border issue, as both sides sought to highlight areas of agreement with an ambitious plan to double trade to 100 billion dollars by 2015.
The only reference was a vague pledge to try and “maintain peace and tranquility” in border areas and continue talks on the issue ― already the subject of 14 rounds of fruitless negotiations.
“It will not be easy to resolve this; it requires patience,” was Wen’s only public comment.
The border dispute triggered a brief but bloody war in 1962 that proved to be a defining moment in modern Indo-Chinese relations and the basis for decades of mutual suspicion and mistrust that have yet to be fully shed.
India says China is illegally occupying 38,000 square kilometers of its northwestern territory, while Beijing claims a 90,000-square-kilometre chunk of northeast India.
Perceptions that China is taking a harder line on its claims have led New Delhi to beef up its military presence along the frontier with thousands of extra combat troops, armor and expanded frontline airbases.
Siemon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said issues of “national prestige” have always blocked efforts to resolve the dispute and warned that further militarization carried obvious dangers.
“While both sides make statements that the dispute should be solved peacefully, they also make prestige vis--vis each other more important,” Wezeman told AFP.
“The border dispute remains a problem and, if reports are to be believed, little incidents happen frequently.
“With more troops and weapons poured into the region, such little incidents can grow bigger and get out of hand, potentially leading to the same type of short, nasty conflict as in 1962,” he warned.
A report by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies this month reached a similar conclusion.
The IISS stressed that the likelihood of a full-scale conflict was “low” but added that the possibility of border skirmishes “cannot be ruled out and, in such an environment, there is plenty of scope for misunderstandings.”
The “prestige” issue was amply demonstrated last year when China complained bitterly over a visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which comprises much of the territory claimed by Beijing.
China said the visit, which came ahead of state polls in Arunachal, was provocative, while India insisted Singh was following “established democratic practice” by touring regions in the run-up to elections.
Such bickering was put firmly on hold during Wen’s visit, when all the talk was of cooperation, trade and a partnership between two rapidly emerging economies that will help define the 21st Century.
“We are friends, not rivals. We will always be friends, never rivals,” Wen proclaimed in New Delhi.
But many observers believe a more realistic assessment was provided just days before Wen’s arrival by the Chinese ambassador in Delhi who described relations with India as “fragile, easy to break and difficult to repair.”
While India’s rivalry with Pakistan has traditionally been seen as the most dangerous potential flashpoint in the region, tensions with China, coupled with the rapid modernization of their respective militaries, is a growing concern.
China’s annual defense budget is the second largest in the world after the United States and India is expected to spend 112 billion dollars on capital defense acquisitions between now and 2016.
India is particularly wary of growing Chinese influence ― especially in the form of major infrastructure projects ― in surrounding countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Prime Minister Singh gave voice to these concerns in September when he said China wanted “a foothold in South Asia“ and that India would have to ”reflect on this reality.”
Some in the Indian defense establishment believe the answer is a more muscular military deterrent along the maritime as well as land borders.
“China’s growing belligerence and steady encirclement of India has rung alarm bells and drawn attention to our historic neglect of the seas,” former Indian navy chief Arun Prakash wrote in the latest edition of Vayu military magazine.