India-China cooperation in the Asian century

By Shastri Ramachandaran*

NEW DELHI – India had more than one message for China prior to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s three-day visit to Myanmar, the world’s newest darling of democracy being wooed with ardour by the two Asian giants and the US.

From New Delhi went the un-subtle message that the prime minister’s visit was actuated by the neighbourly intent of peace and prosperity; and, not by any expansionist design. Taking a dig at China comes naturally to some in New Delhi, even when it is inappropriate – as it was here, because it does not fit with Manmohan Singh’s style and persona.

In contrast, far from Delhi, in Manipal, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee drew attention to the common challenges facing India and China, which together they could tackle to hasten the global power-shift from West to East and usher in the Asian Century. He spoke of poverty and inequality as the common challenge facing Asian economies, and the imperative to eliminate the disparity between advanced Asia and developing Asia for making the 21st century an Asian Century.

Although there was no direct reference to China, it was clear that Mukherjee was making a strong pitch for greater India-China cooperation across the continent and on the world stage. “To gain in unison, we must act in unison,” he said. “Even in existing multilateral fora, including the G-20 and the IMF, we should aim to coordinate more in areas where there is significant collective gain to be achieved.”

If his speech attracted more than routine attention in diplomatic circles and in China, it is because he was setting the tone for a two-day expert group discussion on the ‘Role of India and China’ in the Asian Century, organised by the Manipal Centre for Asian Studies, which strives to promote an atmosphere of enquiry and research and break new ground.

Manipal, 65 kms from the port city of Mangalore on India’s west coast with a population of 25,000, is described as an “international village”. It is also home to the Manipal Group, Institute of Technology, University and Medical College and Hospital, all of which enjoy world renown.

Hard Questions

The presence of high-profile officials, including from the Cabinet Secretariat, at the closed-door ‘seminar’ suggest that the exercise was a serious attempt at finding answers to some of the hard questions which haunt India-China relations. It was, perhaps, also designed to generate some new impulses for greater cooperation between the two, particularly in pushing for reform of international financial institutions to advance the interests of Asia and developing countries.

The discussion brought to the fore New Delhi’s preoccupation with the global centre of gravity shifting from the West to the East; and, the ways in which India and China may join hands to take a bigger lead in world affairs. There is a realisation among those involved that greater trust between the two is the key to moving forward in tandem to fashion an alternative arrangement. At the same time, it is acknowledged that several initiatives to dissolve the prevalent distrust have not succeeded.

Realistic Appreciation

Despite the extraordinary rapport between Manmohan Singh and premier Wen Jiabao and the booming India-China trade, the recurrent strains in the relationship have given rise to concern in various quarters. Yet, at the highest levels of government, both in Beijing and New Delhi, there is a realistic appreciation of each other’s strengths, limitations and compulsions.

This prevents the situation from getting out of hand and regardless of ups and downs, the pre-set agenda on diverse tracks is not derailed.

Mukherjee’s encouraging note and persuasive message intended for Beijing may be that New Delhi is firm in its resolve to work for reforming the global political and financial order. The message comes at a time when Indian traders are battling local Chinese hostility in the trading town of Yiwu in the southern province of Zheijang. Indian and Chinese officials are locked in intense negotiations to spring the Mumbai businessman, Danish Qureshi, from the illegal custody of a Chinese group which has kidnapped him.

Qureshi being held hostage underscores the bitter and complicated nature of such commercial disputes, where willy-nilly officials get drawn into conflicts that are essentially private but to which neither government can turn a blind eye.

What gives cause for optimism is that even as the Qureshi affair, and recent incidents involving Indian businessmen being detained in Yiwu, dominated the headlines, official India was hosting an event in Beijing to woo investments from some of the biggest Chinese companies such as ZTE and Huawei.

The central question of how India and China can overcome their distrust of each other was repeatedly raised in Manipal. At the same time as this issue was being deliberated here, India was hosting an event in China to win over investors. While the business initiative was intended to mitigate the mistrust between traders of the two countries, the expert group consultation in Manipal was to grapple with question of how to address the distrust at other levels.

The recognition that the East’s rising powers – India and China – have to come to terms with each other for a tomorrow without the West calls for eliminating not only bilateral disputes but also poverty in Asia.

*Shastri Ramachandaran is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator, and he had worked as Senior Editor & Writer with the Global Times and China Daily in Beijing. This article first appeared in Daily News & Analysis (DNA) on June 6, 2012. [IDN-InDepthNews – June 01, 2012]. And, of course, he is a TFF Associate.

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