Ties between China and India continue to strengthen. While some worry about a “new axis” between Beijing and Delhi, it is only natural that two of the world’s largest countries — neighbors, no less — have strong and cooperative relations. Asia needs them to have a positive, forward-looking partnership. The real question is whether the two governments can move beyond their tendency to see the other as a rival. Competition between them must be contained and must not spiral into conflict.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pushed the China-India relationship forward during his four-day visit to India this week. Calling India and China “brothers,” Mr. Wen promised to make the two countries partners rather than rivals.

As a critical first step in that process, Mr. Wen and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed on “guiding principles” to resolve a border dispute that brought the two countries to war in 1962. The deal calls on each to respect settled populations and the other country’s security concerns. In other words, the principles ratify the status quo.

Now the two governments have to fashion those principles into a framework for political action. In one important gesture that should create good will, Mr. Wen presented his host with a new Chinese map that showed the disputed region of Sikkim as part of India.

With the border irritant removed from the bilateral equation, the two countries will be able to focus on building the political and economic relationships that both see as vital to their development. China is India’s second-largest trade partner, after the United States. In 2004, bilateral trade reached $13.6 billion; the two leaders pledged to push trade to $20 billion — about the same as trade between India and the U.S. and more than four times the level of India’s trade with Japan — by 2008. The two economies are complementary: China is a manufacturing powerhouse while India remains strong in IT software and services.

Ultimately, however, the economic environment will be shaped by politics. That is why the gift of the map — and the territory — is so important. India reciprocated with statements acknowledging that Tibet is a part of China. Two years ago, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee promised during a visit to Beijing to respect Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. As part of that pledge, he also promised not to allow “anti-China political activities” in India, a reference to the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala, which is led by the Dalai Lama. That promise was repeated in this week’s joint declaration.

Both governments worry about unrest in Central Asia and the possible spread of Islamic extremism. China invited India to “liaison” with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a multilateral security mechanism led by Beijing and Moscow that is designed to help stabilize Central Asia. (The South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation does not offer observer status, so China could not be extended similar privileges.) Mr. Wen also supported India’s attendance at the East Asia Summit, which will be held for the first time later this year. Delhi’s presence at that meeting would send a real signal about India’s place in the region and would represent an important step forward for India. Since the meeting is being organized by ASEAN, it is unclear just what China’s “support” ultimately means.

The talk of partnership and a new era in relations sounds good, but history provides plenty of reasons for skepticism. India and China together account for about one-third of the world’s population. Both see themselves as the natural leader of their region, and both see the other as a potential foil for larger ambitions. Thus, China has provided lukewarm support for India’s claim to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Both countries continue to think in terms of balancing power. China’s close relations with Pakistan are one expression of this logic. That relationship has been spurred by “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” thinking. It is unlikely that Beijing will turn its back on Islamabad, and that relationship will continue to irritate Delhi. Fearing encirclement by a U.S.-led alliance to “contain” it, Beijing has also labored for the past several years to settle its various border disputes; the one with India is one of the last. India, too, speaks of a new geostrategic order, but its reflexes are far more conventional. It argues that it belongs in Asia: Delhi strengthens that case by saying that India can provide a counterweight to China within the region.

With one-third of the world’s population and home to two of the most dynamic economies, India and China need a positive relationship. Working together, they can reshape the regional order. As nuclear-armed competitors, they also have the ability to destabilize it. We can only hope that both countries are sincere about crafting a forward-looking strategy.

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