An India-China Axis?

Is a new alignment between India and China rising to balance America’s global power? Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao just completed a four-day visit to India during which 11 agreements were signed, including a comprehensive five-year strategic cooperation pact. In addition, Wen announced that China would support India’s bid for a permanent seat on an expanded UN Security Council, and opposed the inclusion of Japan, which the United States supports for a Council seat.

With over a third of the world’s population and two of the globe’s highest economic growth rates, an alliance between China and India could be a serious factor in world politics. While both are developing countries – many of whose people remain impoverished – they also boast impressive capabilities in information age technologies both for civilian and military purposes. As Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put it during Wen’s visit, “India and China can together reshape the world order.”

The two countries’ recent rapprochement marks a huge change from the hostility that bedeviled their relations following their 1962 war over a disputed border in the Himalayas. When I first visited India as an American government official in the late 1970’s, I was struck by my Indian hosts’ fixation on gaining equal status with China. In 1998, when India tested its nuclear weapons, the defense minister referred to China, and then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke of China as India’s number one enemy.

By contrast, on more recent visits to India, I have found my hosts referring to the need to learn from China. Trade between the two giants has grown from $100 million in 1994 to nearly $14 billion last year, and India’s minister of commerce and industry has predicted that it will double by this decade’s end. One agreement signed during Wen’s visit was a new set of guiding principles on how to settle boundary disputes between the two countries.