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Rivals China, India in escalating war of words

China offered to help India's archrival, Pakistan, develop a territory claimed by India. India invited the Dalai Lama, a top irritant to China, to visit a state claimed by China.

By Staff writer / October 20, 2009

Activists of Shiv Sena, a Hindu hardline group, shout slogans as they burn an effigy of China's President Hu Jintao during a protest against the Chinese government in New Delhi October 5.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters



China and India have taken a vituperative war of words and diplomatic barbs to an unusual level of tension in recent days, prompting fears that the traditional rivalry between the two Asian giants could spin out of control.

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"The most urgent present job for both sides is crisis management," says Han Hua, an expert on South Asia at Peking University. "I don't think either government wants the situation to go further downhill."

The recent angry exchanges were prompted by a decades-old border dispute over which the two countries went to war in 1962, and which has proved impervious to 13 rounds of negotiations since.

But deeper resentments lie behind the spat, says Shen Dingli, deputy head of China's South Asia Research Institute. "The structural problem is leadership," he argues. "The question is who leads in Asia?"

Trading barbs

The "People's Daily," published by China's ruling Communist party, launched a blistering attack on India last week, accusing it in an editorial of "recklessness and arrogance" and of harboring "the dream of superpower ... mingled with the thought of hegemony."

The tirade followed an expression by the Chinese foreign ministry of its "deep dissatisfaction" with the election campaign visit earlier this month by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its own territory.

India responded with a protest at China's offer of aid for a hydro-power project in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, which India claims as its own territory.

New Delhi has also let it be known that next month it will allow the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, to visit a major Tibetan monastery in Arunachal Pradesh. That is bound to infuriate Beijing, which has been especially sensitive to Tibetan issues since an uprising in Tibet in March 2008.

Meanwhile, India has this year moved two army divisions to areas adjacent to the border with China, and built three new airstrips in the Himalayan foothills. The buildup is seen as a bid to match Chinese military might in southern Tibet, and to deter increasingly frequent cross-border incursions by Chinese patrols. (See Monitor story here.)