WASHINGTON -- China and India, which together are home to a third of all people on Earth, are moving from decades of confrontation to a new relationship of cooperation that will have global impact.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has produced a promising set of agreements to help settle a long-standing border dispute, increase trade and decrease mutual distrust between the two giant Asian nations and their combined populations of 2.2 billion people.
Both countries fought a border war in 1962, leaving a sense of suspicion and tension between them that lasted for years. Diplomatic relations were reinstated in 1976, but each nation has retained thousands of troops along disputed borders, and is armed with nuclear weapons.
In fact, India's 1998 nuclear tests were initially interpreted as a hostile maneuver aimed at China. The situation was exacerbated by the Indian defense minister's statement that China was India's main threat.
But in the last few years, both countries have slowly come to the conclusion that their national interests can be compatible. When asked, many leading officials and scholars in both countries say that remaining disputes on borders and Tibet are not worth a war.
As neighbors with huge populations, high poverty rates and weak economies, China and India face many common problems. Increasingly, working together appeals to the leaders of the two nations as the best way to tackle these problems and resolve their disputes.
With the decline of the communist ideology, Chinese policy-makers note that a political philosophy that can unify the state is absent. Securing its external borders and relations with neighboring countries allows China to focus on growing internal problems.
Indian policy-makers are less concerned than their Chinese counterparts that ethnic or economic forces could threaten the unity of their nation. In fact, Indian leaders overwhelmingly state in interviews that the unity of the Indian state does not hinge upon keeping Kashmir. In contrast, most Chinese policy-makers say a separation from Taiwan could mean the end of China as we know it.
Rather than worrying about the country disintegrating, India is trying to refocus its national efforts on economic growth to match China's success. Indian growth rates have averaged 6 percent in the past decade, but growth needs to be even faster to eradicate poverty and raise living standards. Conflict and tensions with neighboring China and Pakistan have posed a large economic hurdle for India in the past, impeding foreign investment and absorbing critical budgetary resources.
Moves by Mr. Vajpayee's government to foster ties with Pakistan complement his recent initiatives in China, and could eventually lead to a significant demilitarization of India's northern borders. A breakthrough in Indian relations with China is also likely to mean a tremendous growth in trade between the two countries in coming years. Whereas a decade ago, trade volume between India and China was a paltry $300 million per year, it has now increased to $5 billion annually and is growing.
Of course, the field of competition has also shifted to economic interests. India eyes with envy China's rapid growth rates and competitiveness in the consumer goods sector. China, for its part, is hoping to emulate India's success in the information technology arena. With common strengths and export markets, trade competition is inevitable. But a fight on economic terms can do both countries good.
The implications for U.S. foreign policy are far-reaching. Although India's close relations with the United States will remain a priority, maintaining positive ties with China will probably be increasingly important to ensure future security.
A warming of ties between India and China also means that America needs to understand that China, India and Japan could work cooperatively in the future, and attempts to play off India against China may be unlikely to bear fruit. At the same time, the new closeness between India and China means that the United States can worry less about an outbreak of nuclear war between the two that could kill millions of people and throw the world into turmoil.
Instead, America can refocus on working with the world's two most populous nations on mutually beneficial economic and strategic relationships that will benefit people in all three nations and much of the world.
Rollie Lal is a political scientist in the Washington office of The RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun on August 3, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.