Hindi-Chini Bhai, Bhai! Oh, Really?
India and China may be serious about jointly reshaping the global economy but many cobwebs from the past remain, the list of grey areas headed by persisting suspicions about each other's long-term intentions.
Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shakes hands with Chinese leaders on his maiden visit to Beijing, experts say the two countries will have to work very hard to allay misgivings that cloud their desire to accommodate one another's, and at times conflicting, interests.
Chinese officials admit that there is trust deficit between the two sides, not the least of it because of the 1962 war the two countries fought over a border dispute that has still not been resolved.
India's security establishment says there are other worries too and that not all the fears are entirely groundless.
In India, contrasting attitudes towards China among different sections of the government have led to embarrassing moments, giving rise to impressions that one hand does not seem to know what the other desire. Often the thinking of the external affairs ministry and the commerce ministry has been at odds with the thinking of the home ministry and its intelligence and security establishments with their dyed-in-the-wool suspicions and even paranoia over Chinese intentions vis-'-vis India.
Naturally, this upsets the Chinese.
Even as New Delhi welcomes the increasing participation in its economy of Chinese companies, questions are often asked why many firms insist on bringing even cooks and electricians who are available in plenty all over India. Some Chinese companies, awarded long term contracts, bring in teams with as many as 500 personnel.
The Chinese argue that they have a different work culture and that their employees work longer hours compared to Indians. And since they are determined to complete all their projects on time if not ahead of schedule, they would much rather prefer their own nationals, rather than Indians, take up even minor jobs in their projects.
Only some Indian officials are ready to accept this argument at face value.
There is also no shared understanding on whether Chinese companies should be awarded projects in Indian states bordering China, more so in areas with strategic overlaps such as seismic surveys and hydroelectric projects in areas like Sikkim.
At the same time, there is confusion in New Delhi on how to keep the Chinese companies out of certain areas, particularly when global tenders are involved.
Backed by heavy government support in the form of deep subsidies, Chinese firms are very aggressive when they compete globally, willing to accept losses for even up to 10 years to get a foothold in other countries, India included. Indian businesses do not share these norms, putting them at a disadvantage vis-'-vis China.
Last year, a conference the Indian ministry of department of northeast region had organized was cancelled at the eleventh hour on the intervention of the security establishment after it came to be known that several Chinese were among the foreigners invited to the strategically important region.
Even as tourist traffic picks up between the two countries, Beijing does not approve of its nationals going to Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan spiritual leader's government-in-exile is based in the Indian hill town.
There are also larger issues that affect economic relations indirectly. China has shared nuclear and missile technology with Pakistan and it does not view favorably India's growing strategic ties with the US, Japan and Australia. Even while sharing space in international forums, both countries have contrasting strategic outlooks vis-'-vis Myanmar, Southeast Asia and the Far East.
For countries that viewed one another as foes for a long time after their 1962 border conflict, India and China have, however, come a long way as they seek to become leaders of the global economy with more and more joint business ventures. It has not been an easy transformation.
Bilateral trade has doubled in the last two years, and they now plan to achieve the target of $40 billion by 2010, two years ahead of schedule.
If that is to be achieved, and without frictions, both countries would need to shed their misgivings about one another, experts say. That may not be easy, given their past, notwithstanding the determination of the two leaderships to embrace one another in pursuit of economic growth.
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M. R. Narayan Swamy
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