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Late riser: India charts its own course

By Stephen Minas - posted Friday, 31 December 2010

Two scenes. In the first, the ambassador of one country warns that relations with a second are "very fragile, very easy to be damaged and very difficult to repair". He calls on his hosts to "avoid a war of words". The host nation’s foreign minister retorts that the ambassador and his government have merely been "exposed to the vibrant, … noisy nature of our democracy. The fact that many schools of thought contend, many opinions are expressed which are often at divergence with each other".

In the second scene, the premier of one country visits a second at the head of a delegation of four hundred business leaders. On the second day of the visit, nearly fifty agreements worth a total of $16 billion are signed. The premier hails the two countries as "partners in co-operation, not rivals in competition", and asserts that they "share broad common interests in the international trade system".

The countries in the first scene are, respectively, China and India last week. The countries in the second scene are also China and India, also last week.


The visit to New Delhi by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao underscores both the significance and the complexity of India’s emergence as an Asian power.

China’s premier has been one of a string of high-profile leaders to descend on the Indian capital. Nicolas Sarkozy led a French delegation earlier this month. David Cameron and six cabinet ministers visited the former British colony in July. This week it was the turn of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

The difference with China is not just scale (as the Hindustan Times commented, with the size of Wen’s delegation "the red carpet needs to be a bit longer") but politics. For while the British and French visits were straightforward missions to drum up trade, China’s relationship with India is tainted by border disputes and mutual wariness.

A battle along the border in 1962 left some 3,000 Indians dead. The areas of Aksai Chin (held by China, bordering Kashmir) and Arunachal Pradesh (held by India, bordering Tibet) remain disputed. China’s decades-old, "all-weather friendship" with Pakistan is an ongoing irritant to Delhi.

It was to Pakistan that Premier Wen proceeded after his Indian visit. $20 billion worth of agreements were concluded between the two governments, while deals between Chinese and Pakistani firms reached an additional $15 billion. Wen’s progress through the fractious South Asian neighbors coincided with Indian accusations that Chinese and Pakistani drones have breached Indian airspace.

And China is not just a difficult neighbor. It also serves as an uncomfortable yardstick for India’s own progress toward development and clout.


India’s per capita income was higher than China’s in 1960. It is now less than half. India lags in infrastructure and administrative efficiency. A torrent of dismaying statistics can be found in former World Bank researcher Herbert Werlin’s recent article in New Global Studies. An estimated "judicial backlog of 26 million cases" gives the flavour.

Just as stark as the statistics is the contrast between Beijing’s meticulous Olympics and Delhi’s troubled Commonwealth Games. Images of a filthy athletes’ village and child labour on building sites graphically illustrated the gulf that still separates the neighbors.

The pointed reference to India’s "vibrant" democracy by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao is an example of the qualitative distinction Indians often seek to draw between themselves and their bigger, faster growing and more powerful neighbor.

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About the Author

Stephen Minas is a journalist and a research associate with the Foreign Policy Centre, London. Twitter @StephenMinas

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