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China: The Giant Awakens : India

June 15, 1993|Mark Fineman

It wasn't much of an arms purchase, even by the modest standards of the remote little kingdom of Nepal.

But when the Himalayan nation that has long viewed itself as "a yam wedged between the two mountains of China and India" announced plans to buy about 100 troop trucks and a few dozen antiaircraft guns from Beijing five years ago, officials in New Delhi reacted as though it was an act of war.

Within days, New Delhi sealed virtually every entry and exit point between India and the landlocked kingdom, triggering severe food and medicine shortages and an economic crisis so dire that even Bangladesh had to come to Nepal's aid.

The Indians ultimately relented, and Nepal remains solidly within India's sphere of influence. But the incident illustrates the intensity of competition and distrust that still colors the relationship between India and China, despite an ongoing series of border talks and other recent efforts to forge a new era of cooperation between them.

The evolution in relations between the world's two most populous countries has included a monthlong border war in 1962, ensuing decades of enmity, more border skirmishes in 1987, and, in general, a post-colonial atmosphere of military and economic competition for influence not only in Asia but in the Third World as a whole.

India and China have two of the world's largest armies. And both have proven their ability to manufacture and detonate nuclear weapons from entirely indigenous arms-development programs.

(There have been reports--denied in Beijing--that China has nuclear missiles in Tibet aimed at India.)

A series of contentious regional alliances, built up through the decades of distrust, remain the biggest obstacles to a close Sino-Indian friendship.

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For New Delhi, the most contentious has been China's close ties with Pakistan, India's Islamic neighbor to the west and twice its enemy in war. Chinese scientists have worked closely with the Pakistanis to develop ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets deep inside India, in addition to providing Islamabad with vast development aid.

For Beijing, the worst irritant is the haven that India has provided for about 100,000 Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama, who has used his headquarters in the north Indian city of Dharmsala as a podium to preach to the world against the Communist leadership that invaded Tibet and has held it under a virtual military dictatorship for more than three decades.

The two Asian neighbors also have a continuing dispute over their Himalayan border, although they appear to be making progress in a series of talks heading into their sixth round this month. A formal agreement on a series of confidence-building measures could be signed during a planned visit to Beijing later this year by Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. The talks are among important moves the two countries have made toward normalizing their relations, especially since December, 1991, when Premier Li Peng became the first Chinese leader in three decades to visit New Delhi.

At that time, the two countries agreed to reopen their international border for the first time since 1962. China opened its markets to Indian iron, chrome ore and tea, and India permitted imports of Chinese newsprint, raw silk, coal and petroleum products. The agreement also permitted the reopening of consulates in cities such as Bombay and Shanghai.

In an effort to defuse the Tibetan issue, India officially recognized Tibet as an autonomous province of China, and backed its new policy by suppressing Tibetan demonstrators who turned out to protest Li's visit.

Among the things the two countries have in common are ambitious programs of economic liberalization and burgeoning populations that, together, already represent more than one-third of mankind. If every fifth human being on the globe is Chinese, one in six is an Indian.

Chinese-style compulsory birth-control and sterilization programs have not worked in democratic India, where a brief experiment with them in the mid-1970s led to the fall of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government. And, with a birthrate of more than 2.1%, India's current population of nearly 900 million may well surpass that of China by the middle of the next century.

Despite the thaw in relations, most analysts in the region have only modest hopes that anything more than peaceful coexistence will mark the Chinese-Indian relationship for the foreseeable future.

"Their differences are so much larger than their common bonds," said one diplomat. "And they're in a neighborhood that, quite frankly, just doesn't seem big enough for both of them."

(Fineman was the Times correspondent in India from 1988-1992.)

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