China's Xi arrives in India. Can Asia's giants put their differences aside?

Chinese President Xi Jinping is on his first official visit to India, where he may sign investment deals worth $200 billion. Behind economic cooperation lurk reservations about each others' strategic intentions.

Amit Dave/Reuters
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (r.) and China's President Xi Jinping wave before their meeting in the Indian city of Ahmedabad Sept. 17, 2014. Xi arrived in India as the two Asian giants take steps to boost commercial ties. China has pledged to invest billions of dollars in Indian railways, industrial parks and roads, but ties between the nuclear-armed nations have long been held back by distrust, mostly over their contested border.

For as long as most people on either side of the border can remember, Asia’s neighboring giants, India and China, have been rivals, and sometimes enemies. Arriving in India today for his first state visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping hopes to put that history to rest.

So does his host, recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has often said how much he hopes India might emulate China’s economic miracle.

“There is a strong intention on both sides to consolidate economic linkages and override political differences,” says Ye Hailin, an expert on south Asia at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-linked think tank in Beijing. “Their common economic interests will help them postpone the political questions” such as a long running border dispute.

Those common interests are not hard to spot. India’s new government has staked its future on creating more jobs, and that means building up its manufacturing industries. It also means rolling out the roads, ports, and railways needed to get products to market.

China, with a worldwide reputation for building infrastructure quickly, is looking for investment opportunities abroad.

Indian press reports suggest that the Chinese leader could sign investment deals worth $200 billion to build industrial parks and high speed rail tracks and dig irrigation reservoirs and canals, among other projects.

Behind the rosy prospects on the economic front, though, lurk reservations about each others’ strategic intentions, fueled by a history of rivalry. In 1962 India and China fought a brief war over territorial disputes that have still not been resolved, and New Delhi harbors suspicions about Beijing’s longstanding friendship with India’s old enemy, Pakistan.

It will not have escaped Chinese diplomats’ attention that since coming to power four months ago, Mr. Modi has been at pains to improve Indian relations with Japan – currently embroiled in a fierce territorial dispute with China – as well as the United States and Australia. Beijing suspects all three of plotting to hem China in.

At the same time, the two neighbors have made common cause in international forums, demanding a greater voice for developing countries in the global financial system, for example. India and China are founding members of the BRICS development bank, launched earlier this year as an alternative to the World Bank.

They are both also refusing to subordinate their development goals to international environmental targets such as fixed ceilings for carbon dioxide emissions. Neither Mr. Xi nor Mr. Modi are expected to attend this month’s United Nations climate change summit.

Bolstered by such shared visions, Xi and Modi are likely to draw on their similar reputations as “can do” leaders who came up through the provincial political ranks on the strength of concrete achievements, though Xi was born into Communist Party privilege. 

Their expected emphasis on common purpose “does not mean they will find solutions to their differences, but that is not the goal of this visit,” says Prof. Ye. “India and China have enough patience to handle economic questions first and leave political issues for another time."

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