China and India: Asia's Budding Partnership or Growing Rivalry?

"Though China has raced ahead of India economically and militarily, it must approach its neighbor as an equal participant..."

In his September 17 op-ed in The Hindu, Xi Jinping proclaimed China and India “the two engines of the Asian economy.” He exhorted both countries to push forward on joint economic and strategic initiatives that would cement their leadership roles in an increasingly multipolar world. Through words and deeds, such as his recent signing of concrete bilateral agreements with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, Xi has continued to chip away at the cautious façade that has characterized Chinese foreign policy over much of the past three decades.

Indeed, Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of “keeping a low profile” seems less central to China’s foreign affairs under its new leadership. Xi has taken a more proactive path. In recent years, while not shying from confrontation with adversaries to its east and southeast, Beijing has simultaneously sought to reinvigorate old friendships. Not since the era of Zhou Enlai, who joined with Jawaharlal Nehru to promote the nonaligned movement of the 1950s, has China so assertively built ties with its Himalayan neighbor. In his three-day visit to India this past week, Xi strove to bind up old wounds, promising to seek resolution of the two nations’ territorial disputes, and explored new avenues of economic and diplomatic cooperation that would encourage broader transfer of technology and intellectual capital and further align the two states behind a shared conception of “fair and reasonable” international governance.

Xi and Modi, who have both cultivated far more populist images than their predecessors, Hu Jintao and Manmohan Singh, seem to share a special rapport. Modi visited China four times as Chief Minister of Gujarat, and Xi said that his first meeting with the Indian leader, at the BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, was like being reunited with an old friend. Modi also seems to admire the Chinese model of economic development. He has called for India to pursue similar advancements in infrastructure and manufacturing—areas in which Xi has proven eager to assist. The dozen bilateral agreements signed by the two leaders during Xi’s visit include a pact promising Chinese involvement in a high-speed rail project linking Chennai, Bangalore and Mysore, and a memorandum of understanding that will facilitate development of major Chinese industrial parks in Gujarat. The leaders also pledged to begin talks on civil nuclear cooperation, as well as counterterrorism and other security issues.

The proposed Sino-Indian rail project comes just weeks after Modi and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe resolved to cooperate on a planned high-speed rail link between Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, and Mumbai. During Modi’s visit to Tokyo, Abe pledged his readiness to provide technical and operational support, which would allow India to build a system similar to its Shinkansen network of bullet trains. Rather than opening a new line, the Sino-Indian agreement provides a blueprint for Beijing’s role in modernizing an existing, ordinary line. Chinese experts will help upgrade tracks to create high-speed corridors, redevelop existing stations and train over 100 Indian Railway personnel in systems-monitoring and rail-traffic control.

On the Chinese side, these agreements represent an earnest effort to broaden economic ties and improve strategic relations. But they are also meant to balance against Beijing’s adversaries, far and near. In the face of the U.S. rebalance, China has attempted to reinforce its own network of alliances in Central and Southeast Asia, while also edging out Tokyo. Both the United States and Japan have vied for a role in India’s campaign to expand its nuclear-energy production. Washington did so via its 2008 nuclear agreement with New Delhi, and Japan and India resolved to seek further collaboration on nuclear energy just weeks ago, during meetings between Abe and Modi. But efforts to bring foreign firms into the Indian nuclear-power sector have been largely stymied by an Indian law that would assign heavy liability to those firms in the event of a nuclear accident. Though unlikely, if Beijing successfully negotiates cooperation with India in the sector, it will have opened China’s path to a share of the over $150 billion in expected Indian nuclear projects over the next several decades.