A Handshake Across the Himalayas

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2013-11-07 15:50
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From May 19 to 22, 2013, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang conducted an official visit to India, achieving what can be called a handshake with Indian leaders across the Himalayas. Premier Li Keqiang’s choice of India as the destination of his first foreign visit demonstrated the great importance that the new Chinese government attaches to China-India relations. During the visit, the two countries issued a joint statement in which both sides expressed their commitment to further consolidating a strategic partnership oriented to peace and prosperity on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and mutual consideration of each other’s concerns and aspirations.

The global significance of China-India relations

With a population of 1.2 billion, India is the largest country in South Asia and the ninth largest economy in the world. India has always had the aspirations and poise of a great nation, and has long been a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement. In recent years, with the rapid development of its economy, India’s international status has risen significantly. As one of the major emerging economies in the world at present, India is one of the “BRICS” countries, along with China, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, and is also a member of the G20. India plays an important role in a wide range of international affairs.

The constant enhancement of friendly and cooperative relations with China represents an important strategic direction in India’s diplomacy. As close neighbors, China and India have a long history of friendly exchanges. Indian culture had a positive influence on the development of language, literature, astronomy, geography, religion, and music in ancient China. Meanwhile, the arrival of the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and movable type printing, often referred to as Ancient China’s four great inventions, as well as tea, silk, and pottery from China had a strong stimulating effect on economic and cultural development in India. In modern times, following India’s independence and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the two countries soon established official diplomatic relations, which allowed for the rapid development of bilateral exchanges and cooperation. In the international community, China and India introduced the globally significant Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which is still recognized as a basic norm in international relations. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the two countries have worked closely on a range of global issues such as climate change talks and the restructuring of international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In 2005, the two countries established a “strategic partnership oriented to peace and prosperity.” In addition, the two countries have also succeeded in making further headway in pragmatic cooperation. Since the year 2000, the volume of bilateral trade between the two countries has grown around 20-fold. In 2012, trade between China and India stood at US$66.5 billion, making China India’s largest trading partner globally and India China’s largest trading partner in South Asia.

The China Broadcasting Traditional Orchestra collaborates with Indian musicians to deliver a captivating performance during the China-India Music Festival, which was held at the Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi on November 27, 2012. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Li Yigang

In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping said that the real Asia-Pacific century or Asian century won’t arrive until China, India, and other neighboring countries are developed. In recent years, China and India have been among the fastest-growing economies in the world. Given that China and India are the two largest ancient civilizations in the world and important representatives of emerging economies, the significance of cooperation between the two transcends the scope of China-India relations itself. Cooperation between China and India is a blessing not only to the people of the two countries, but also to Asia and the world as a whole.

Enhancing mutual strategic trust and handling differences properly

Friendly cooperation has always been the prevailing theme in relations between China and India. However, owing to various reasons both past and present, there are also some differences between the two countries. Firstly, there are still border issues between China and India. In the early 1960s, armed conflict broke out between China and India over a border dispute. To this day, this dispute has yet to be effectively resolved. Secondly, geopolitical strategic suspicion exists between China and India. Some people in India have misinterpreted China’s friendship with Pakistan as an attempt by China to use Pakistan as a means of “containing” India. In addition, China and India also have differences regarding Tibet, resource competition, trade imbalance, cross-border water resources, and cyber security.

Despite these differences, the overall development of China-India relations has been sound in recent years. This is because frequent exchanges between senior officials on both sides have helped to build up important mutual strategic trust. During a decade in office, former Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao held as many as 26 official meetings with incumbent Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. At each of these high-level meetings, stress was laid on expanding strategic consensus between the two countries. These mutual understandings have been able to reduce the impact of differences and disputes on China-India relations to the bare minimum.

During Li Keqiang’s visit to India, the two countries made no attempt to sidestep their differences, but demonstrated sincerity by bringing their concerns to the table. With regard to the border issue, Premier Li Keqiang said in his speech, “As two countries with ancient civilizations, China and India have enough wisdom to find a fair, reasonable, and mutually acceptable solution. Before that happens, we will be required to refine mechanisms for the handling of border affairs, improve work efficiency, and properly manage differences, so as to jointly safeguard peace and stability in border areas.”

In the joint statement issued during the visit, the two countries promised for the first time that they would take a positive view of and support each other’s friendly relations with other countries. The statement also contained the reiterations that China and India will not threaten each other; that there is enough space in the world for the development of China and India; that each presents the other with development opportunities; and that the two countries should respect and show consideration for each other’s concerns.

Seizing new opportunities to develop China-India relations

Although a great deal has been achieved in the development of relations between China and India, there have also been some differences. By aiming high and looking ahead, the governments of the two countries should seize on opportunities to strengthen economic and trade cooperation, promote non-governmental and cultural exchanges, and push forward in-depth pragmatic cooperation between China and India.

The different focuses of China and India in economic development make the two economies highly complementary. For many years, India has prioritized the development of the IT industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and other knowledge-intensive, technology-intensive industries, and boasts a relatively well-developed financial service sector; while China has given priority to labor-intensive, capital-intensive industries, such as manufacturing and infrastructure, in which it has an edge over India. Therefore, strengthening bilateral economic and trade cooperation on the basis of the awareness that China and India complement each other is in the common interests of both countries. At present, bilateral trade between China and India accounts for less than 2% of China’s total foreign trade volume, and less than 8% of India’s total foreign trade volume. Obviously, there is great potential to be unlocked in bilateral economic and trade cooperation between China and India.

Trade imbalance represents the main problem in economic and trade cooperation between China and India. In other words, India has a significant trade deficit with China. In 2005, India had a surplus of over US$800 million in its trade with China. However, from 2006 to 2012, India’s trade deficit with China rose from US$4.4 billion to US$28.8 billion. One of the main purposes of Li Keqiang’s visit was to unlock the potential for mutually complementary economic and trade cooperation and strike a balance in the two countries’ bilateral economic and trade relationship. Li Keqiang clearly stated,  “We do not deliberately pursue trade surplus; only a dynamic balance of trade can be sustainable.”

During Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, the two countries proposed the development of the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar) Economic Corridor to strengthen border trade. This move will help to accelerate the process of regional integration between these four countries. It will promote the formation of a larger market and stronger impetus for joint development, thereby boosting the realization of joint and inter-connected development on a wider scale between South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China. In addition, the two sides also reached a series of preliminary agreements on cooperation in a range of sectors including manufacturing, financial services, infrastructure, and regional economic development.

A lack of people-to-people exchanges between China and India, coupled with malicious speculation and misleading reports in the Indian media, has resulted in peoples in China and India being unable to gain an objective and accurate understanding of each other. Therefore, it is especially important that people-to-people contacts and cultural exchanges between the two countries are strengthened. Before his visit to India, Premier Li Keqiang met youth representatives from China and India in Beijing, encouraging them to participate actively in and propel friendly cooperation between China and India. The strengthening of people-to-people exchanges was also included in the joint statement issued by the two countries. These initiatives include: identifying the year of 2014 as the China-India “Friendly Exchange Year”; continuing to host the annual exchange of 100-member youth delegations; enhancing Chinese language teaching in India; promoting inter-provincial exchanges and the establishment of friendly ties between provinces and cities in the two countries; increasing border trade and personnel exchanges; affording more convenience to Indian pilgrims visiting Tibet; stepping up exchanges and cooperation between the media in the two countries; and simplifying visa application procedures.

It was Mother Nature’s choice that the Chinese and Indian peoples would live on either side of the Himalayas. However, the Himalayas should never become an obstacle to the friendly exchanges between the two peoples. Through their respective development, China and India present each other with opportunities, not challenges. As long as the two countries look ahead and continue to work together, there is no doubt that they will be greeted by a brighter future in which China, India, Asia, and the world as a whole enjoy prosperity and development.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.12, 2013)

Hu Shisheng is a member of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations; Zhong Bing is a member of the CPC Jiangsu Provincial Party School.

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