China Power

Can China and India Warm Up to Each Other?

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China Power

Can China and India Warm Up to Each Other?

People-to-people and cultural exchanges between the two neighbors remain shockingly low.

Can China and India Warm Up to Each Other?
Credit: Flickr/ MEAphotogallery

There is an Indian restaurant on the fifth floor of a shopping mall in Wudaokou, a neighborhood in northwest Beijing that has a disproportionate number of foreigners — mostly students and scholars who are affiliated with the three universities nearby, Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Beijing University of Language Studies. In March 2013, when I was craving the wonderful curry dishes I remembered from a visit to India, a friend of mine recommended this place, and I immediately took my family there for dinner. It has a name that cannot be more Indian: The Ganges.

Beijing is a heaven for food connoisseurs, as it brings together the finest cuisines from all over the world. But as far as I know, that is the only Indian restaurant in the western part of Beijing.

Perhaps not many Beijing residents are fond of Indian food like I am. But it could also be a sign that not many Indians — students, researchers, businessmen, or tourists — actually live in the capital city of China. But how could this be? Both China and India are the “emerging economies” of the world; along with Brazil, Russia, and South Africa, they are known as the BRICS (the acronym for the five countries). With both India and China boasting more than 1 billion people, aren’t they supposed to be important markets for each other, and as such, shouldn’t there be massive cross-border flows of people, goods, and services?

Reality seems to be a far cry from expectations. Take my university (Beijing Foreign Studies University) as an example. Every year nearly 1,500 foreign students are enrolled in Chinese language learning courses at my university, but I don’t recall any encounter with Indian students on campus. Most of these students are from Southeast Asia (particularly Malaysia and Thailand), Africa, South Korea, Japan, the United States, and assorted European countries. It may well be that my university does not have much appeal to Indian students. But there are few Indian students at other universities in the city too, as I found out from my colleagues.

With its many catering establishments, bars, and cafes, as well as its proximity to three prestigious Chinese institutions of higher learning, Wudaokou has a reputation for being the center of activities — intellectual and otherwise — for foreign students. Unless my memory fails me, I don’t remember coming across a single Indian student or scholar during my frequent visits there. In fact, the only Indians I have met in Beijing are diplomats.

About two years ago, I was invited to a dinner, and one of the guests of honor turned out to be the Indian ambassador to China. “Why are there so few Indians in China, ambassador?” I asked. “Is it because the Indian government discourages Indians from coming here?”

The ambassador appeared to be startled by my question. “No, no, of course not,” he replied immediately. Then he went to great lengths to explain how New Delhi had been promoting economic and cultural ties with Beijing through various policies, but he admitted that the results had been far from satisfactory.

What about the Chinese presence in India? During my first visit to that country in 2013, I stayed in the Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) area for six days, and the only Chinese person I ran into was a backpacker from Shanghai who started his travels from New Delhi. There were many Chinese fishing nets — brought by Chinese sailors who arrived in Kochi in the early 15th century — along the shore of Fort Kochi and on the banks of the extensive waterways in the area, but they were set up by the locals to attract tourists, not by Chinese laborers making a living in a faraway land.

I went to Kochi for the second time in early March this year, and spent another six days in its vicinity. This time I didn’t bump into a single Chinese person. One indication of local residents’ rare exposure to the Chinese is that they almost always asked whether I am Korean or Japanese. Perhaps Kochi has little to offer to Chinese businessmen, students, or tourists? Maybe there are many more Chinese in big cities like New Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore? There happen to be two Indian students in a class I teach on the ship by which I traveled to Kochi, so I turned to them for answers. Their impression is that the number of Chinese nationals in India is quite small. In fact, they have never met a Chinese student on their respective college campuses, they told me.

The second day after we departed Kochi, students enrolled in another class of mine shared their experiences in India. I asked them what they had learned about India-China relations in between their travels. One student said three issues stood out in conversations with his Indian interlocutors: border disputes (including a border war in 1962), India’s democracy (China is not), and potential threats from a powerful China. The two countries still have about 4,000 kilometers of border that remain unsettled. Then there is the question of Tibet, as the exile government of the Dalai Lama is seated on the Indian side of the border. Last but certainly not least, China has an “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan — apparently the nemesis of India. Given this long list of highly controversial issues, it is small wonder that the India-China relationship has been progressing slowly.

But the world cannot afford to have its two most populous countries — and potentially its two biggest economies — locked in an estranged relationship. The snow in the Himalayas has been melting at a faster speed than the flow of people and goods across the two countries. If China and America — separated by the vast Pacific Ocean and divided by sharply different ideologies — can build up an extensive network of political, economic, and cultural ties, there is no reason to believe that the Himalayas constitutes an insurmountable barrier to a closer relationship. Indeed, India distinguishes itself in Chinese foreign policy as arguably the only major country with which China has a distinctly cool-to-cold relationship on both the economic and political fronts. Perhaps the arrogance of the two great civilizations has prevented an intimate relationship. More likely, however, the barriers that keep Beijing and New Delhi at a long distance are man-made, as a result of the lack of vision and courage among political elites in both countries.

In international politics, a country can choose its friends, enemies, or trade partners, but it cannot choose its neighbors. For the sake of regional and international peace and prosperity, the elephant and the dragon should warm up to each other.

Hopefully there will be more Indian restaurants and Bollywood movies in Wudaokou, and more Chinese businessmen and tourists in Kochi when I return to India for a third visit.