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A Thaw That May Remake the World

After years of mistrust, growing powers India and China are gingerly developing relations.

August 25, 2006|Henry Chu and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

NEW DELHI — High atop a snowy Himalayan pass, a lonely road linking Asia's two giants reopened last month after a 44-year diplomatic roadblock.

Leaders in India and China hailed the event as a sign of the growing rapprochement between neighbors that have eyed each other with distrust since a 1962 border war. Officials say the artery along the fabled Silk Road will invigorate trade between their two booming countries.

But the reopened Nathu La pass is an apt symbol of SinoIndian ties in more ways than one. The rough terrain, icy weather and extremely short list of goods approved for exchange are emblematic of the rocky path of limited engagement that Beijing and New Delhi have embarked on after decades of a political deep freeze.

Their evolving relationship may help define the 21st century as the world's two most populous nations -- which account for one-third of humanity -- try to pull themselves out of poverty and stagnation.

By 2050, some experts predict, the United States, China and India will have the planet's largest economies.

In a noticeable thawing of relations, New Delhi and Beijing have taken steps in recent years to reduce military tension, increase government contacts and expand trade. The two governments declared 2006 their "year of friendship," to be marked by cultural events and a summit of Chinese President Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

But establishing a truly strategic partnership will be no mean feat. Persistent suspicion among hawks on either side, unresolved border disputes, intensified competition for resources such as oil and gas, and influence from Washington could all act as a brake on Sino-Indian cooperation, analysts say.

That both nations stand to benefit from a peaceful, improved relationship is clear.

"In the next two decades, both sides want to be a rising power," said Hu Shiren, a South Asia expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing. "To facilitate this, you must have good, stable surroundings. Cooperation is most imperative."

China's communist government, in its rush to remake the country into a capitalist powerhouse, has put a premium on stabilizing relations with neighbors and settling contested borders.

India, too, after years of looking inward, is liberalizing its economy and paying more attention to the region. It's particularly keeping an eye on China, whose economy is nearly three times the size of its own, as it begins flexing its muscles politically, militarily and economically on the global stage.

"They've been a rising power for 20 years, and we didn't notice. We were so obsessed with our little world," said Mohan Guruswamy, head of the Center for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi. "The establishment in India has begun to take note, and it's slowly and lumberingly beginning to change its attitude."

Mention China here and hackles still rise. Official Indian rhetoric on the behemoth to the north remains heavily colored by the 1962 border war that led to the closing of the Nathu La pass, a conflict each side accuses the other of provoking.

In 1998, India's defense minister pointed to China as the country's No. 1 threat. That same year, the Indian prime minister infuriated Beijing by writing a letter to President Clinton citing China as one of two reasons India was conducting nuclear weapons tests.

The other reason was archrival Pakistan, a longtime ally of China whose own nuclear buildup Beijing is accused of aiding.

The Indian military's view of China is one of abiding mistrust.

"It's gospel among the armed forces. It's sacred to the hawks in this country," said Alka Acharya, an expert on international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "They don't budge from that position."

Large swaths of mountainous territory technically remain in dispute between Beijing and New Delhi, despite a breakthrough agreement three years ago to push for a permanent settlement. Several rounds of talks have yielded little substantive progress.

The recent completion of China's Tibetan railway touched off warnings here of easier access to the area by People's Liberation Army troops. China contends that the rail line was built to help develop its impoverished western provinces.

"Some Indians see an ulterior motive, but this is ridiculous," said Hu, the South Asia expert. "If there were a war, of course the railway could serve military purposes; but its main purpose is for the economy."

In contrast to the enduring suspicion among the Indian military's top brass, the reality is far more relaxed. The India-China border, which stretches for more than 2,500 miles, has lain largely quiet for 25 years, to the point that soldiers on both sides of the Nathu La pass engage in friendly sporting matches, celebrate each other's festivals and exchange gifts.

Reopening the pass July 6 represented official recognition not just of greater mutual trust but of the increasing importance of economics in Sino-Indian ties.

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