Long distance relationship
I recently had a back row seat next to a Chinese neighbour for an India-China event. India’s external affairs minister S M Krishna was delivering a speech at an official think tank and every chair was taken.
“Ye kursi bahut kimti hain, (this chair is very valuable)’’ said the Chinese professor as he asked me to guard the chair for him. The professor was intent on following the long speech. He walked out midway, returned with a photocopy of the speech even before the media got it, and paid attention till the last word.
The professor teaches Urdu to Chinese students who then get snapped up for jobs in India and Pakistan, and he speaks Hindi better than most of the Indians I know. I asked him why he chose to study the language and he replied like an Indian. “Kismet (destiny).’’
Over the last two weeks, I happened to meet several Chinese with an eye on India, from elderly academicians to artists who can sing in Hindi but not speak Hindi. A Chinese singer who visited India several years ago, found a teacher on her own, and returned after learning two Hindi songs in two months. She played her CD for me as she drove, and narrated her India experiences where she never encountered hostility. She kept saying she felt safer in India than China, while I on the other hand feel safer walking alone on the streets in China.
Every time I am introduced to a Chinese invitee at a bilateral event, whether a nuclear policy analyst or a scholar of Buddhist scriptures, they say it’s time to build ties among people on both sides of the border, and express frustration that there are limited ways for Indians and Chinese to mingle, work and study.
Can the people of Asia’s two largest nations with a difficult mutual history and major political and trade disputes bridge the gap in this unique long-distance relationship? Yes. But at the current pace, it will take several years before friendly ties can be forged on a large scale.
After the latest bilateral talks between India and China in Beijing, the big issues remained in deadlock. India reiterated that stapled Chinese visas for Kashmir residents are unacceptable and asked for greater ‘sensitivity’ on the issue, while the Chinese officials made no public comment. Both sides promised, again, to cooperate more closely on counter-terrorism and made predictable comments about resolving the border dispute.
Increasing people-to-people linkages, again it’s been said before, is as important as sorting out the politics and can effect faster changes in the political and business mood. Before leaving Beijing, foreign secretary Nirupama Rao said that education had a ‘prominent position’ in the discussions and both sides expressed a desire to develop academic ties to the level of India-US and Sino-US linkages. That would be exciting — if it happened — and add new energy and drive to mutual relations and dramatically improve how Indians and Chinese work and innovate together.
A Chinese Professor of Hindi at the Peking University says that on the first day of his class, no hands go up when he asks students if they understand India. Five weeks later, when he repeats the question, all hands are raised. Related blog here.
Today’s extent of student linkages, after 60 years of diplomatic ties, is nowhere near the long-term ideal. Neither side has mentioned a timeframe nor exactly how academic ties would be scaled up.
About 7,000 Indians, mostly students of medicine, study in Chinese universities. A smaller number of Chinese IT students throng southern Indian universities. Hardly one lakh Chinese visit India annually, most of them on business trips, (up from just 1,371 in 1981) and five times as many Indians visit China. India’s cultural centre and tourism office in Beijing was set up only a couple of years ago, after more than five decades of a diplomatic long distance relationship.
The idea of people-to-people linkages on the scale that the Indians and Chinese share separately with the US, got a footnote in the political big picture of the bilateral talks. But it’s an ideal that Indian and Chinese business leaders and professors in China will tell you they have been hoping for since years.
In 2008, when I interviewed Johnson Lam, the first Chinese CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in China, he had quoted a Chinese proverb: 1+1=11.
“If we use this philosophy, and if government relations improve, then India and China can create a pool of wealth,” Lam said. “If India and China help each other utilise the best of both worlds instead of just competing, it can create magic.”