The rapid and simultaneous rise of China and India has raised serious concerns about an inevitable, if not existential, competition between the two emerging powers. Unsurprisingly, there has been a cottage industry of commentary on the coming clash: In August 2010, the Economist's front cover blared "Contest of the century: China v India"; a new book from China watcher Mohan Malik is titled China and India: Great Power Rivals; the pages of the Chinese and Indian press -- particularly the latter -- are filled with columns focused on conflict; and the blogosphere in both countries is often scarily nationalistic about the relationship.
Of course, Chinese and Indian leaders tend to emphasize that the relationship is stable and downplay any talk of rivalry. According to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, "China and India are partners for cooperation and not rivals in competition. There is enough space in the world for the development of both China and India." Similarly, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh insists, "India and China are not in competition.… There is enough economic space for us both." If there is a paradigmatic instance of the growing convergence between the two countries, it is the explosive increase in Sino-Indian trade: from $2 billion in 2000 to $60 billion in 2010, a figure that is projected to double by 2015.
But the hard truth is that Asia's two biggest powers do see each other as a threat and, because they do, are trying hard to manage the rivalry. History has played a role in their perceptions of each other. During the Cold War, they pitched their tents in different camps: From 1971, China was America's quasi-ally while India was the Soviet Union's. By then, the two countries were also divided by a border quarrel, conflict over Pakistan, and mutual suspicions over Tibet. The result today is a trust deficit between the giants of Asia. International concern about the relationship is understandable: A "protracted contest" between China and India, to use Sinologist John Garver's description, would be disastrous for 40 percent of the world's population, the rest of Asia, and humanity at large.
While China and India feel threatened by each other, cooperation seems like an increasingly attractive course. First, unlike past global powers such as Britain, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States, whose rises were accompanied by the capacity to fight massive wars far beyond their borders, China and India cannot rise through expansion backed by military might. Although both countries are arming themselves -- India is now the world's largest arms importer -- their ability to project power is constrained by fundamental social and political challenges at home and by the presence of nuclear weapons in each other's hands and in the hands of several other powers. In short, China and India seek security and respect, not empire.
Second, instead of challenging the existing international economic order as their predecessors did, China and India have integrated into that order and by doing so have achieved unprecedented rates of economic growth. War, conflict, and unregulated competition between them would jeopardize the very arrangements that are making their rise possible. Thus, economic and political reforms at home, not the threat or use of military power, are China's and India's preoccupation.
Thirdly and most importantly, their roughly simultaneous rise and the rather similar processes that have propelled their rise -- economic liberalization at home and integration with the global economy -- have caused them to be on the same side on major global issues such as restructuring the world financial system, maintaining an open international trading system, and combating climate change.
China and India have a deep stake in the world economy. Both worry about ill-regulated financial sectors, the fiscal crisis, and recession in the West, as well as the huge amount of liquidity pumped into the advanced economies by central banks -- liquidity that is causing volatility in capital flows and commodity prices elsewhere. This worry was underlined in the BRICS joint communiqué this March. Both are also worried by a possible turn to protectionism among richer countries as their manufacturing base migrates to the developing world.
Moreover, China and India recognize that climate change is a massive challenge. In the run-up to and during the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit, they coordinated their negotiating positions and together defended the notion that as developing countries they could not reduce their carbon emissions. They also argued vigorously that rich, already industrialized countries must pay for climate mitigation and adaptation.