India and China: Two countries, as large as continents; each with more than a billion people and each a rising power on the world stage. Their relations will be shaping the future.
The difference between the two regional powers could not be bigger. India likes to call itself the world's largest democracy. It has a free press, an independent judiciary and about a million starving children. China is ruled by its authoritarian Communist party, but has risen to become the second largest economy in the world. Both are direct neighbors, separated by a common border 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) long, which neither side has officially recognized half a century after a bitter frontier war.
"The conflict potential is considerably broad," says the Berlin-based political scientist Eberhard Sandschneider. India sees itself in competition with China. Its comparisons to China are obsessive - to the point that India continually sees itself as playing catch-up, notes Sandschneider.
There are also security issues, he adds: "India views suspiciously China's so-called pearl necklace strategy - that is, the construction of naval bases around India." Then there is the unresolved border conflict, not to mention India's sensitivity toward Tibet. After all, says Sandschneider, India is home to the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government.
Conflict potential: water
Looking to the future, Sandschneider sees another potential issue for trouble, namely water from the rivers of the Himalayas. Several of South Asia's and Southeast Asia's key rivers have their source in Tibet, among them the Brahmaputra. Its waters are indispensable for large parts of India and Bangladesh. "In light of the major drought problems both in northern China and in India, issues about water usage carry considerable new conflict potential," warns Sandschneider.
A study commissioned by the State Department in Washington came to the same conclusion last February. The authors of "Global Water Security" predicted growing conflicts related to water in the near future. The study found that as other sources literally dry up, the need to tap these waters increases. Key factors are population growth and climate change. China is already pursuing a comprehensive dam-building program along the upper reaches of the Mekong, Salween and Brahmaputra rivers.
The countries further downstream are watching these developments with growing concern. They fear the amount of water available to them will decline. In Beijing, plans are circulating to divert water from the Brahmaputra to the drought-stricken regions of northern China. So far, the plan has not been technologically feasible, but India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been concerned enough to conduct talks on the issue with the Chinese leadership.
According to Jagarnath Panda, a China expert at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, water formerly played no role in bilateral relations. Now, however, it has become a key problem. "It is not the border question. It is the question of what role China or India will play at the regional or global level. In the next five to ten years, water will be the most serious problem between the two countries," he said.
Since their border war in 1962, a deep-seated mistrust of China has prevailed in India. This mistrust has been fed by the impression that China appears eager to slow down India's development. One example is China's position on India's efforts to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. "China is not thrilled by the idea of India having a permanent seat on the Security Council," notes Gu Xuewu, a political scientist in Bonn. "China, however, has never openly opposed it. Instead, Beijing has always argued that such a reform would need a broad international consensus."
Chinese-born Gu has another painful insight for India: "The Chinese do not see India as a player in the same league. China's ambition is to play at the same level as the United States, not with India. That is why China needs Pakistan to maintain its strategic initiatives in areas such as energy security, access to the Indian Ocean and the strategic safeguarding of transport routes for Chinese exports."
Pakistan's deep-water port of Gwadar was built with China's help
And, in fact, relations between China and India's arch-rival, Pakistan, are extraordinarily close. It is often referred to as an "all-weather friendship." The growing divide between Pakistan and Washington is also driving Islamabad closer to Beijing.
China also recently began operations at the new Gwadar deep-water port. China helped build the strategically favorable port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, not far from the Iranian border. India fears that Gwadar could become a Chinese naval base, although Beijing has denied such intentions.
In the currently escalating territorial disputes in the South China Sea, China and India are again at loggerheads. Due to oil deposits in the area China has claimed nearly the entire South China Sea for itself. China has offered for sale nine oil fields to international buyers just 70 kilometers (44 miles) off the Vietnamese coast. Two of these oil fields, however, have already been offered to India by Vietnam.
China watchers can often be heard quoting the dictum that the only thing growing faster than China's economy is its self-confidence. Correspondingly, China has been robustly assertive in the conflicts over the disputed marine territories. In mid-September China put its first aircraft carrier into service – a weapons system that not only serves defense, but is meant to project military power.
But India's self-confidence has grown, too, in the wake of its economic success over the last ten years, even if the growth engine has sputtered of late. It also became apparent, after the country's largest blackout this summer, that some 300 million people in India have no access to electricity. Even so, nuclear-armed India is the world's largest importer of weaponry - and it is not just eyeing Pakistan to the west. It is increasingly paying more attention to its large northern neighbor, China.