A Chindia world

The visit of Premier Wen Jiabao to New Delhi last week has rightly received an inordinate amount of attention from the Indian press. There has been some celebration of the $23 billion in investment projects signed by the two countries during the visit, a sum that dwarfs the $14 billion signed by the US President Barack Obama when he was here. There has also been some satisfaction at the way New Delhi stood up to Beijing’s attempted bullying on Tibet, in particular India’s refusal to repeat its usual ritualistic endorsement of China’s views on Tibet and the “One China” policy — so long as Beijing remains unwilling to show similar sensitivity to India’s views on Jammu and Kashmir.
So far, so good. Trade will clearly continue to grow; the Chinese will make special efforts to open up market access to Indian companies, who have long been chafing at the “non-tariff barriers” that impede their ability to penetrate the Great Wall; and there are very strong indications that Beijing will do away with the irritant of the stapled-visa policy for Indian citizens born in Jammu and Kashmir. (If we could only succeed in getting a Srinagar-based Indian general a visa to resume defence exchanges with the Chinese military, my satisfaction would be even greater.)
But the one area on which I have seen nothing — and I mean literally nothing, not so much as a smidgen of a comment — is the potential for future cooperation between India and China, not just between themselves (in their bilateral relations), but in the multilateral arena.
The opportunities for cooperation here are in fact great. There is, first of all, the regional plane. China and India have notably strengthened their cooperation in regional affairs. China has acquiesced in India’s participation in the East Asia Summit and invited India to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as an observer, just as India has supported China’s becoming an observer at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). While Asia is devoid of meaningful security institutions, their interlocking economic and trade relationships with each other and with other Asian countries can, and in my view will, knit China and India closer together.
But multilateral cooperation need not be confined to the Asian region. China and India have broadly similar interests and approaches on a wide range of broader international questions, from most issues of international peace and security to the principles of world trade and the ways and means of coping with globalisation. They have already begun working together in multinational forums on such issues as climate change and environment protection, and have no real differences on matters like encouraging biodiversity, promoting dialogue among civilisations, promoting population control, combating transnational crime, controlling the spread of pandemic disease, and dealing with challenges from non-traditional threats to security. All of these areas provide a realistic basis for further long-term cooperation.
One exception, alas, is the issue of combating international terrorism, where China’s indulgence of Pakistani terrorist groups at the UN has been deplorable. There is little doubting that it is thanks to Beijing providing cover for Islamabad that the UN Sanctions Committee has not gone further towards proscribing the Jamaat ud Dawa and getting Hafiz Sayeed onto various international “wanted” lists. We should perhaps have taken the opportunity of Mr Wen’s visit to point out that this kind of behaviour is arguably not in Beijing’s own long-term interests. After all, Uighur militants in Xinjiang, radicalised in Pakistan, have been known to set off explosive devices in China and seek refuge in the Islamic Republic, hardly a practice Beijing would like to see repeated too often. But for the moment, China attaches greater importance to the strategic relationship with Pakistan than to what is still the relatively minor threat of Pakistani-inspired terrorism on its own soil.
Of course, that can change, and China-India cooperation can also improve on the issues of piracy, oil spills and other international environmental issues, nuclear disarmament and arms races in outer space, human trafficking and natural disasters — all of which are issues on which the two countries could play mutually supportive roles, take joint responsibility and contribute to the establishment of new rules in the global system. New areas of cooperation could also emerge — wildlife conservation, for instance, where both countries could co-operate on issues like the smuggling of tiger parts to Chinese customers, or disaster management, where Asia’s two giants have much to learn from each other but have made no effort to do so.
Turning to the big-picture issues, it is true that in the global geopolitical arena there is one difference between us: we in India would prefer that the international institutions of peace and security, notably the UN Security Council, reflect the geopolitical realities of today rather than of 1945. Here we may not be on the same page as China, which has not shown much enthusiasm for a reform that would give us, and worse, Japan, a comparable status to Beijing’s at the world’s high table. But in the international economic system, there is no difference between us: we both aim to pursue a long-term objective of broad parity between the developed countries and the developing and transition economies in the international financial institutions. After all, the recent global financial crisis showed that the surveillance of risk by international institutions and early warning mechanisms are needed for all countries. Both China and India agree that developing countries should have a voice in overseeing the global financial performance of all nations, rather than it simply being a case of the rich supervising the economic delinquency of the poor.
All this is not just to assert ourselves on the world stage. India’s and China’s broad strategic goals must remain the same, to enable their domestic transformation by accelerating our growth, preserving our strategic autonomy, protecting our people and responsibly helping shape the world. There is a great deal more we need to do to this end — and doing it partly on the world multilateral stage, rather than simply in our two foreign ministries, is something that the mandarins in both capitals could well spend more time thinking about, and working on with each other. India and China certainly won’t ever be a new G2 at the UN, but our increased proximity on the Security Council could well give us a good opportunity to start being more than distant neighbours on our ever-shrinking planet.

Shashi Tharoor is a member of Parliament from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram constituency

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