The western media has meticulously documented China’s recent economic explosion. Yet for a long time many wondered why India, the world’s second most populous country, lagged so far behind. Some surmised it had something to do with cultural differences, while other postulated that the problem was political. In the last few years, this debate has disappeared as quickly as India’s record of slow growth has. But a new question has emerged: will China and India be able to move past their rivalry and become partners once again?
The two countries share long borders, primarily along the edge of Tibet, and have coexisted in one form or another for thousands of years. Tea and Buddhism have flowed across their mountainous boundaries and defined their cultures since before Mohammed was born. Yet in the modern era, bilateral trade has remained surprisingly minimal until quite recently. As of 2000, it amounted to only US$2.9 billion, or slightly more than 1980 levels of Sino-US trade, well before China had liberalized its economy.
In the last six years, though, things have changed considerably. China and India’s once precarious relationship, while still somewhat fragile, is gaining strength quickly. Trade has gone up nearly nine-fold since the turn of the millennium, and Beijing is now India’s second most important trading partner by volume (after the US). While specific political differences contributed to the late start of modern economic cooperation, trade has been difficult, yet critical, throughout their shared history.
Despite close proximity, India and China have significant geographical and cultural obstacles that separate them. While Tibet’s border runs along much of India’s, there are several barriers. Nepal and Bhutan serve as buffers, much as Mongolia did on China’s northern border during the Sino-Soviet rift. And sandwiched between these two small countries is a strip of land connecting Tibet to the Indian state of Sikkim at the Nathu La Pass. This focal point of India-China trade, both commercial and cultural, has also long been an area of political dispute.
To make things even more difficult, the Tibet-Sikkim border is situated in rugged mountainous terrain. The only passage across is at the Nathu La Pass, the connection between India and the ancient Tea-Horse Road, or 茶马古道 (Cha Ma Gu Dao), more than 4000 meters above see level. Snow and cold make it nearly impossible to traverse except in the warmest four months of the year. Despite these problems, at the beginning of the twentieth century this treacherous corridor accounted for 80% of China-India trade. Yet in the middle of the century the two countries had swapped merchants for soldiers, and the Nathu La Pass saw no commerce for 38 years before reopening in 2006.
Even now trade trickles through at an excruciating rate. Only specific goods—goat fur and yak tails from Tibet; carpets, alcohol and cigarettes from India—are included in the recent agreement. Meanwhile roads on both sides remain rudimentary, eroded from years of disuse. The two governments are highly optimistic that the pass will once again become the great trading route that it was for centuries, but progress remains slow. These two burgeoning economies press against each other, and yet goods squeeze through this tiny ancient gateway atop some of the world’s grandest mountains at a crawl. It seems logical that this drip will once again become the torrent it was during the old Tea-Horse Road’s heyday, but no one knows for sure.
Josh Gartner is the managing editor for China Expat Magazine