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News Overview 2015

Good Neighbors or Rivals? China and India at a Crossroads

Together, China and India are home to more than a third of the world’s population. "The geopolitical situation in these two countries is a defining factor in the current era. The same is true for their economic developments and their demand for resources. China and India are not only neighbors but also rivals," said Christian Hänel, head of the International Relations America and Asia program area at the Robert Bosch Stiftung. At the Foundation’s Berlin Office, he opened an event entitled "China–India Relations under Xi and Modi: Paradigm Shift or Business as Usual?"

Relations between China and India certainly seem normal on the surface. The two countries invest in each other’s economies and work closely in the energy sector. They were two of the founding nations of the multilateral BRICS Development Bank and work together on a regular basis as members of the United Nations. However, as event moderator and Spiegel journalist Susanne Koelbl explained, anyone who takes a closer look will notice discernible cracks and fault lines in relations between the two countries. She argued that these are particularly apparent in terms of the fundamentally different political systems: "India is proud of its chaotic yet functioning democracy; China’s political system, on the other hand, is shrouded in secrecy."

Charm Offensive in Indian Foreign Policy

A particularly delicate subject is the fact that China has traditionally maintained good relations with Pakistan, India’s historic adversary. Chinese companies are building and investing in the country as part of infrastructure projects such as the port of Gwadar. In addition, they are also active in the Pakistani-controlled area of the disputed territory of Kashmir. Moreover, a border war broke out between India and China in 1962, which was won by the Chinese after more than 2,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives. "Many ordinary people condemn Chinese support for Pakistan and generally view China as being aggressive," says Kabir Taneja, summarizing the sentiment among India’s population. But Taneja, a journalist and researcher from Delhi who is currently based at Oslo’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute, also argues that India – under Prime Minister Narendra Modi – is doing everything in its power to paint China in a positive light as both a trading partner and the neighboring country with which it shares its longest border. India’s prime minister is also making a high-profile effort to build bridges by posting on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo. Moderator Koelbl then had the following question for Indian expert Taneja: "Does Modi want to follow China’s example and does he have a special relationship with the Chinese leadership?" "No," he replied. While Taneja acknowledged that Modi took his inspiration from Chinese economic policy during his tenure as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, he also added the following: "Neither the Chinese state nor the Chinese leadership can be seen as particular sources of inspiration." He pointed out that, as part of his foreign policy charm offensive, Modi has generally been open to dialog with other leaders.

And what is the Chinese take on relations between the two countries? Wang Chengzhi, historian and professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, takes a relaxed view: "China is a big country that is also involved in border disputes with other neighbors." He argued that this is nothing out of the ordinary and played down its importance in terms of Chinese foreign policy. He also pointed out that, back in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping proposed that China and India carry out joint explorations in the disputed territories in order to promote the sharing of natural resources and thus bring about a win–win situation for all involved. Wang believes that this demonstrates China’s willingness to compromise with its neighbors. He also thinks that China could act as an intermediary between India and Pakistan.

"Although China says it has no malicious intent, its actions tell a different story."

In Wang’s opinion, history shows that a pursuit of hegemony leads to resistance from other nations and to devastating conflicts. "I do not think that China plans to go down this path," he said. "But how does this statement tie in with China’s increasing defense budget, its aggressive rhetoric toward Taiwan, and its various shows of force in the South China Sea?" asked Koelbl. Wang responded by saying that it is never possible to feel entirely safe despite the presence of a global security architecture. "Do not forget that the US is continuing to invest in its military capability and has long been unchallenged at the top." Taneja emphasized that India is deeply concerned by these developments. "Although China says it has no malicious intent, its actions tell a different story." Where would India position itself if war were to break out between the US and China one day? "It is hard to say," he replied, "as the political class in India has grave misgivings where the US is concerned."

And what role could Germany and other European nations play in terms of relations between the two countries? Wang called to mind Germany’s experience in establishing the EU. He proposed that this experience be used to develop ideas for harmonious coexistence in Asia. For his part, Taneja complained that Germany and the EU lack a visible presence in India. "It is high time that Europe started taking India seriously," he said.

(David Weyand, September 2015)

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