BEIJING: “Without cooperation between India and China, the dream of an Asian century is just empty talk,” declared the ‘China Economic Times’ recently, a respected economic publication of the State Council, or China’s cabinet.

The statement exudes unusual excitement about cooperation between two traditional Asian rivals in the state-controlled press here, which until recently had little to report either economically or politically about China’s giant neighbour.

But this excitement is not altogether unfounded. After the visit by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Beijing at the end of June — the first such trip by an Indian premier in more than 10 years, there are reasons to believe that both sides are genuinely interested in furthering their cooperation.

During that visit, the two neighbours opened the way to settling long-running border disputes that brought them to war in 1962 and declared that “the common interests of the two sides outweigh their differences”.

Since then, Chinese scholars have sought to define the common interests that would provide the basis of increasing economic cooperation between Beijing and New Delhi.

A two-day seminar on ‘Sino-Indian relations and Asian security’ organized in Beijing by the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist party last month underscored the countries’ similarities.

These range from the priority they put on maintaining social stability in order to develop their economies, their common goal to create a multi-polar world, their role in securing Asia’s peace and keeping the US-controlled oil routes from the Middle East unobstructed.

“In a relatively long period in the future, the over-riding strategic task either for China or India would be to provide a stable national and international environment for both countries to develop their economies and societies,” the ‘China Economic Times’ quoted one of the speakers, Sun Shihai, as saying at the seminar.

Similarities between the two countries run even in areas where competition prevails. With over one billion people each and armed with nuclear weapons, both China and India strive for strategic leadership of the continent.

Both are undergoing heady economic expansion, and want an outlet for their political and technological ambitions. For both governments too, conquering space is a matter of national pride and prestige.

China’s Shenzhou IV rocket recently landed safely after 162 hours in orbit, and government officials now talk excitedly about sending an astronaut into space in the following months. Within 20 years, they expect to put a man on the moon and launch a quest to conquer Mars.

Not to be outdone, India is about to kick off its own moon programme: according to media reports, by 2007 the Indian Space Research Organization will launch an $85 billion lunar mission.

Recent solidarity between the two countries — displayed during the September talks on world trade in Cancun, Mexico in protecting the interests of the developing countries — has also played well to position India and China as allies rather than foes.

Both countries are reluctant to link international trade to stringent labour and environmental standards and eager to explore each other’s potential export markets.

Yet there is still much room for Chinese-Indian economic cooperation to develop.

According to China’s Ministry of Commerce figures, last year there were only 15 major Chinese companies with investments in India, and Indian firms have set up only 71 investment projects in China.

In the run-up to the largest Indian trade and industry show next week in Beijing and Shanghai, ‘Made in India’ is the talk of the town. Both Beijing and New Delhi are keen that 2005 sees a doubling of bilateral trade, which has grown from virtually nothing a decade ago to $5 billion last year.

While visiting China in June, Vajpayee made a point of opening a new Shanghai office for the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), India’s leading business group.

The CII is one of the organisers of the India Week China — a series of industry exhibitions and high-level seminars to be held in Beijing and Shanghai from Oct 13 to 19. Indian Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley will be in China to inaugurate the show.

The flurry of diplomatic and trade initiatives between the two sides has warmed ties and helped set the tone for more pragmatic approach to economic cooperation. Nevertheless, suspicion has ruled the economic, as well as political, relationship in the past and there are numerous obstacles to a China-India axis in the future.

Among the dividing issues are: the lingering border dispute; India’s alleged support for the “anti-China activities” in Tibet and Beijing’s traditional alliance with Islamabad.

At the same time, recent gestures by Washington that favour Pakistan are pushing India — which in 1998 cited the China threat as a justification for its nuclear missile tests — and China closer together.

Both countries are alarmed by the convergence of US global dominance in military, economy and politics and fear the unilateral ambitions of the United States.

For China, which continuously pledges commitment to Pakistan, its rapprochement with India is part of a larger strategy to counter what Beijing sees as US attempts to contain it through closer ties with its giant neighbours.—Dawn/The InterPress News Service.

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