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Shrug and awe between Asia's two giants

Indians admire northern neighbour's economic prowess yet fear its intentions; Chinese prefer to look west than south

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 11:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 7:11pm
 

Leaders in Beijing and New Delhi may be putting historical enmity aside, but the warming political relations aren't necessarily translating into closer links between the people of the world's two most populous nations.

In India, the talk is of whether China is emerging as a threat and whether India's economy can compare to the runaway success of its northern neighbour. In China, however, few are sitting up and paying attention to happenings south of the Himalayas.

The growing interest in China among ordinary Indians has prompted leading Indian newspapers such as The Hindu to appoint correspondents in Beijing and run commentaries reflecting their views of a country that leaves many Indians perplexed.

On the economic front, China is viewed with admiration by the Indian media. But in terms of security, China is often painted as the transgressor in frequent rows over the disputed Himalayan border, most recently a three-week stand-off in April, when Chinese and Indian troops stood just 100 metres apart in the Karakoram Range on the western sector of the China-India border. The two fought a brief border war in 1962.

The concern is deepened by China's relationship with India's strategic rival Pakistan; Beijing is a key investor and trading partner of Islamabad, one of the oldest and most loyal allies of the People's Republic.

"India has quite a lot of interest in covering China," says Manoj Joshi, a veteran Indian journalist who is now a distinguished fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank. "The past history and the entire Sino-Indian border generate a great degree of interest because there have been a lot of activities on that border, and that is something which worries the Indian side."

You don't need to read the newspaper commentaries to understand how Indians feel about China. Walk into a New Delhi restaurant or café and it doesn't take long to garner a few views on Beijing.

Economically, they will question why India has fallen behind China in the past 20 years - a fact some Indians attribute to the efficiency of one-party rule over their own messy democracy.

"I think economically, it is a very fast developing country," says Anirudha Totewar, a trainee at a Mumbai-based steel company, adding that he hears from the media that China's economy is outperforming even that of the United States. "China has its own priority and India has its own priority. Chinese people, as many as I have met, are more calm and goal-oriented people. As far as Indians are concerned, they are not very much goal-oriented."

An opinion poll released in May reflects the mixed feelings of Indians when it comes to the rise of China.

The study, by two Australian think tanks, revealed that 83 per cent of Indians considered China to be a security threat, a fact the Observer Research Foundation attributed to China's nuclear arsenal, the competition for the resources of underdeveloped nations and Beijing's efforts to build relations with India's neighbours, not least Pakistan.

Almost two-thirds of Indians believe their government should work with other countries to counter China's rising power, yet a similar number say they want New Delhi and Beijing to work together to strengthen their role in world affairs.

Abhay Das, an overseas education consultant in Mumbai, says he is comfortable with China's economic growth because of the "good policies of the Chinese government", but says fears are spreading that China is tying to "divide India" through its close relationships with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

"They are trying to overrule India, and they may try to defeat India in terms of business. That's the whole thing, and that's what I feel," he said. "The Indian government should oppose the Chinese government, warning them not to send military aid to the Himalayas and Pakistan."

Others in India believe that China has deliberately failed to resolve the border issue - the exact boundary between the two sides has never been settled - as it gives Beijing a chance to flex its military muscle.

They want the Indian government to protect the border, though they favour dialogue over war.

"When they [the Chinese] started crossing the border of India, I think it's a bad thing because they should not have done that," said Tejas Narkar, a Mumbai-based assistant film director. "There should be more Indian soldiers on the border. There should be more protection there, and the Indian government should keep watch on it."

But plenty of Indians think positively of China. Totewar, the steelworker, says Chinese aggression is a thing of the past. Marienelle D'Souza, a television producer, says border tensions do not bother her.

"I have a colleague who is half Indian and half Chinese, and there is no tension between us," she said. "The border thing is a political issue that no one wants to bother about."

Sentiment towards India in China remains cool. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre last year found only 23 per cent of Chinese people surveyed had a favourable opinion of India, while 62 per cent had a negative one. Only 39 per cent of Chinese people regard their country's relationship with India as co-operative, down significantly from 53 per cent in 2010. But far from seeing India as a political or economic rival, they are apathetic about the country.

"My perception is that India is a backward country, and infrastructure there is inadequate," said postgraduate student Leo Zou from Beijing. "The news about India here is mostly negative, about things like rape."

The difference in perceptions is reflected in a report by the Indian foreign ministry, which said the number of Indian students in China this year had increased by 15 per cent year on year to 9,200, most of whom were studying Chinese medicine. But only about 2,300 Chinese students are enrolled at Indian universities.

Plans by the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics to run an exchange programme with Indian universities proved tough because of a lukewarm response from Chinese students. Yunnan students are not keen to go to India, says He Lan, who is responsible for the university international exchange programmes.

While a one-week exchange programme with the Vellore Institute of Technology in Mumbai saw 12 Indian students sign up to study in Kunming , just five Chinese students made the return journey - and only after heavy promotion, He said.

"It is difficult to keep this programme running," He said. The university had to consider its cost-effectiveness and could not continue to take on more Indian students than it had Chinese students going to India.

Exchange programmes with France and the United Kingdom are often oversubscribed, even though students have to pay for them, He said.

"Many students believe spending time and money in Europe and the United States is more worthwhile," He said. "And living conditions in India, especially during summer, are so very tough that not many Chinese students want to go."

Mao Siwei, a former Chinese consul general in Calcutta, said Chinese people are more concerned with high-profile rape cases or train accidents in India than social issues there.

"It is quite normal, as Chinese people are more concerned about countries which are more advanced than China," he said of the Chinese attitude to India. "Chinese people are more eager to know about Japan, Europe and the US because they believe they can learn something from them. For India, it is lagging behind China, and so people here do not care about it much."

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