This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Sino-Indian war, when, despite Indian hopes that a shared anti-colonial history would bring the two countries together, divergent perceptions about China's "peaceful" absorption of Tibet and Chinese concerns about internal control led China to attack -- and decisively defeat -- India. 1962 might seem like ancient history in the United States, but the attitudes of the Chinese and Indians toward each other are increasingly suspicious and hostile.
An October 2012 Pew Global Attitudes Project report, for example, notes that 62 percent of Chinese surveyed viewed India unfavorably, while only 38 percent and 48 percent viewed Russia and the United States unfavorably. Indian perceptions of China are even more negative. Less than a quarter of Indians polled characterized the relationship with China as cooperative, and only 24 percent of Indians said that Chinese economic growth was a good thing for India. As U.S. policy has tended to aim for stability in India-China relations, the anniversary of the war presents a fitting time to consider what has changed and what remains the same.
The obvious change from a half-century ago is the shift in the balance of power in China's favor. China achieved local military superiority on the border in 1962 by means of deception, but overall there was rough economic, technological, and military parity between the two countries up to 1980, and maybe even until 1990. That parity is gone, and today the Chinese economic and military advantage is large and still growing. The 2010 Pentagon report on Chinese military power notes the Chinese deployment of nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missiles and approximately 300,000 troops to the Tibetan plateau. These Chinese troops face 120,000 Indian troops in Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian state across the border, which are to be reinforced by 60,000 more. Indians take note of recent Chinese statements that China has dropped laser-guided bombs on targets in Tibet in training exercises, while in March the Indian Army and Air Force staged an exercise in Arunachal Pradesh charmingly titled "Destruction."
Concern about the current imbalance should be tempered by an assessment of longer-term trends, some of which are favorable to India. An aging Chinese population will compete with an Indian population that will remain relatively young. If India can implement appropriate policies, it can benefit from the rapid growth characteristic of the early phases of economic modernization, while China will face the inevitable slowing of a mature Chinese economy. These factors will gradually reverse the imbalance between Indian and Chinese economic growth rates.
What will remain constant is the gulf between the Indian and Chinese worldviews. China's vision is incompatible with India's, whether the issue is cultural pluralism, as witnessed in the mutual incomprehension over Tibet, or the institutional pluralism of democracy. It seems unwise for India to bet that a Chinese state that seeks a political monopoly and extensive control over its own population will not seek, at the very least, deference abroad whenever its growing power allows a credible attempt. China's ongoing support for Pakistan's missile and nuclear program has already put one nuclear power plant online in Pakistan, with another to become operational this year, and China and Pakistan are discussing the construction of two more reactors. In August, the Indian government raised the issue of Chinese security forces and infrastructure construction in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The Indian BJP, the main opposition party, is making an issue of increasing Chinese incursions across the China-India border, asserting that there were 147 border incursions in the Ladakh area in 2012 alone.