by Shanthal Perera
When murmurs about the fall of the United States began a decade ago, there was a consensus that China and India would be two states capable of filling the void. Today, both states have fortified their “regional superpower” status and are slowly growing their influence outside Asia. Still, their close proximity, competing national interests and history of disputes (from borders to Asian politics) continue to cause these colossi to bump heads.
Flexing their might
More recently both nations have expanded their military budgets and enhanced their capabilities. The edge on military expenditure is still firmly with China, who with $106 billion, has the 2nd largest military budget in the world (a distant 2nd to the United States) compared to India’s $36 billion. While much of China’s military equipment is comprised of domestic and Russian makes, India has diversified its arsenal, adding Israeli and Western hardware to its historically Russian and locally equipped military. The two states fought a war in 1962 over a combination of factors encased in a territorial dispute, one that still rankle relations between the two.
Both states have expanded their trade and investment opportunities around the world, taking their influence to the Middle East and Africa. Apart from developing oil economies, China and India are also competing in a recent land grab, acquiring African land for agriculture to help sustain their rapidly growing populations. China has also been able break into South and Central America, both regions rich in natural resources that are integral to meet the growing demands of a rising middle class. India on the other hand have extended their ties with the United States and established delicate partnerships with rival states (example of Israel and Iran) and sought influence in Afghanistan. Both states continue to follow a similar mantra with regard to relations with other countries; non-interference in the politics of other states.
Rubbing the wrong way
However, China has routinely painted India’s support of the Dalai Lama (related to their 1962 border conflict) akin to interfering in China’s domestic affairs. Many Tibetan exiles have found support and refuge in India and Nepal as they contest China’s rule of the autonomous region. Meanwhile, Beijing has continued its strong relationship with Pakistan and used the rivalry to balance India’s power.
Still, it is Chinese advancements in Sri Lanka that have recently troubled the Indian leadership. Sri Lanka was a part of India’s sphere of influence in South Asia but since the election of President Mahinda Rajapakse, has moved further into the Chinese camp. Today, China is almost singlehanded building a new port city and southern capital in Hambantota (Rakapakse’s home town), which include stadiums, convention halls and a new airport. There have even been allegations that China is hoping to establish a naval base on the island.While such notions have been denied by Chinese officials, the issue has not been put to rest.
Furthermore, India’s relationship with Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority has not allowed New Delhi to treat its relationship with their usual code of conduct. With pressure mounting from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, India recently supported a United Nations Human Rights Council vote against Sri Lanka’s handling of its conduct in war and post-war reconciliation. China on the other hand, has continued to stand by its stance on domestic affairs as it has with other cases such as Syria.
While Sri Lanka’s importance was mainly geographical, its worth might be increased by the recent discovery of gas deposits. India has been quick to try and partner with Sri Lanka as the search continues off the Island’s Northern and Eastern coasts. However, local authorities have indicated their desire of opening up opportunities for prospectors from other states such as China, Russia and Vietnam. If these early indications yield positive results, Sri Lanka’s importance in the geopolitical struggle between the two powers will certainly increase.
A bipolar Asia?
While no other state can match the growing power and influence of these two Asia giants, the region itself is not bi-polar. Japan and South Korea remain strong economic powers while Indonesia is pushing to be included as a growing regional power akin to Turkey and Iran. Although the Cold War has ended, Russia’s position between Asia and Europe keeps them a relevant player in the future of the region. Then there is the United States, the predominant power in Western Asia (Middle East) and viewed as a reliable balancing act against both India and China by states like Thailand and Singapore. With relations vastly improving with India and and competiton with China increasing for Washington and her traditional Eastern allies (South Korea and Taiwan), one is reminded that there are more than two boxers inside the ring. Still, there is little doubt that the future of Asia lays in the progress of India and China; two giants that are outgrowing their shared pond.