Military co-operation a vital first step for China and India

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2012, 1:25am

Imagine China and India as friends. With more than one-third of the world's population and the second- and fourth-biggest economies, they could surmount challenges faced by their people while working towards the global good. But their relationship has been rocky since a border war 50 years ago, and a territorial dispute and rivalry for Asian leadership has meant they are distrustful and competitive. A deal by their defence ministers to resume military exercises is a small but necessary step in pushing relations in a positive direction.

Booming trade ties have been pointed to by Beijing and New Delhi as proof of increasingly healthy relations. But while imports and exports have risen 15-fold in the past decade, trade amounts to a paltry US$75 billion and is heavily skewed in China's favour. There is little Indians produce that Chinese want to buy, and without a free-trade agreement, India is prone to protectionist ways. The fact that there are no direct flights between Beijing or Shanghai and India's commercial capital, Mumbai, says everything about the real nature of business.

The contested 4,000-kilometre Himalayan border is at the heart of the matter. Soldiers bristle on either side and China's construction of military infrastructure on the frontier deepens India's concerns. During the recent visit of Liang Guanglie to New Delhi, the first by a Chinese defence minister in eight years, he broached the issue with his counterpart A. K. Antony, but they gave no indication that talks would resume. Their announcement that the countries' armed forces would hold exercises after a four-year freeze topped a list of agreements that also included high-level official exchanges.

India worries that China has adopted a foreign policy of encirclement through its long-time alliance with arch-rival Pakistan and growing economic relations with neighbouring Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. India's joint exploration with Vietnam of oil in the disputed South China Sea has further strained ties. But beyond trade, the nations are more than capable of working together. They have shown that on a range of issues, from climate change to anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, to seabed research.

Trust and friendship take time and effort to build. China and India cannot truly claim to have both until their border dispute is settled and they begin putting their troubled history behind them. Commerce is a good place to start, but closer military co-operation is essential for sturdy foundations. The work has thankfully resumed and must continue uninterrupted.