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28 January, 2009

India and China: the new Odd Couple

A still from Chandni Chowk to China

News Analysis
New America Media

Editor's Note: What if India and China are no longer hostile parties but cooperative players in the geopolitical arena? The union of the two economic powers in Chindia is playfully suggested in a new Bollywood film, but there's more than fantasy behind the idea, NAM associate editor Sandip Roy opines.

When Bollywood's biggest action hero flexes his abs on the Great Wall of China you realize that the pundits might have got it wrong. They've been wondering whether to back India or China in the great horse race of the 21st Century. But what if the answer is both? "India and China can do it better," says the hero of “Chandni Chowk to China,” (CC2C) Bollywood's first kung fu caper. He might just have a point, a geo-political one. South Korea and Japan are already wooing both India and China as markets. It’s not China or India, the new buzzword is Chindia.

“CC2C” doesn't use the word but it does play with the concept – it's like naan meets chopsuey says its hero, or Fung Shastra (Chinese Feng Shui meets Indian Vaastu Shastra). But Chindia is a real enough word. Dr. Jagdish Sheth has written a book about it, “Chindia Rising – How India and China Will Benefit Your Business.”

He points out that Chindia isn't just some klunky word cobbled together by academics. It was actually coined by Jairam Ramesh, India's current Minister of State for Commerce. "That's a big shift for India," says Sheth. "You have to remember the previous defense minister went on record saying that India needed defense primarily from China. Now Ramesh is saying it's actually more advantageous for India and China to get together."

Ever since a bruising 1962 war in which China trounced India, the two Asian giants have been tense neighbors with huge unresolved territorial disputes. When the United States cozied up to India with a sweetheart nuclear civilian deal it was trying to draw India into its camp, courting it as a counterweight to a rising China. "If George W. Bush had a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, that was it," says Bill Emmott, author of “Rivals, How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade.” "India had been a Soviet ally. It was estranged from the U.S. since its nuclear tests. But Bush decided to really open a new chapter."

India appreciates that but it's not committing to a monogamous relationship with Washington. "India doesn't want to be like South Korea which got the flu when America sneezed. It wants a more diversified relationship," says Dr. Sheth, who is also the founder of the India, China and America Institute.

That “diversified relationship” is paying off not just for the makers of CC2C who got to film for ten days on the Great Wall but for the two countries in general.

India-China Friendship Year was 2006 during which the Chinese went out of their way to tell the Indians that the so-called "China threat" was really the West up to its old tricks of divide and conquer.

After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India shared intelligence about alleged Pakistani involvement with Beijing. China sent its Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei to Islamabad and New Delhi to [try and] defuse the tension.

The armies have done joint exercises, and there's a hotline between the foreign ministries.

Until March 2002, the two countries had no direct air connection. It took more than 12 hours to fly from one country to the other. Trade between the two stood at about $5 billion.

"Now China has surpassed America as India's largest trading partner," says [Jagdish] Sheth. Sure, India and China have fought a war. "But that was yesterday's reality," says Sheth. "The only ideology in Asia today is money."

Warner Bros. certainly hopes so. The studio, which produced “CC2C,” is hoping its Indo-Chinese song-and-dance on the Great Wall with thigh-flashing cheongsams will prove to be a global hit. “CC2C” already has had the biggest release of any Bollywood film in the U.S. market. Pairing Bollywood star Akshay Kumar against kung fu legend Gordon Liu it hopes to be the Great Crossover film, complete with half-Indian half-Chinese twins separated as babies on--where else—[but] the Great Wall? (It probably could have left out the deadly made-in-China lipstick its femme fatale uses on unsuspecting victims. (The tainted toys and pet food scandals are still a little fresh!)

It's not surprising that a mega studio like Warner Bros is behind this odd coupling. "Multinationals have long been taking advantage of the synergy between India and China, sometimes more than the Indians and Chinese," says Robyn Meredith, author of “The Elephant and the Dragon - The Rise of India and China And What it Means for All of Us.” The Ipod, she says is a classic example: "A company in Hyderabad developed the brains of the Ipod. But it's actually made in China by Taiwanese sub-suppliers."

But with two of the world's fastest growing economies and a third of the world's population, the two countries are putting pragmatism ahead of historic suspicions. "India and China have embraced both globalism and capitalism at the same time," says Meredith. "It's lifted 200 million people out of poverty. That's an enormous achievement."

Cooperation is the key because both countries are hungry for resources. "There have been a few instances where India has attempted to acquire oil assets, like in Angola, and the Chinese maneuvered their way and beat the Indians out," says Michael Klare, author of "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet." "Now they have signed an agreement to notify each other ahead of time."

The world gets nervous at this vision of India and China coming together to gobble up resources. But [Bill] Emmott says India and China can actually be part of the solution to the quest for new resources. "We need more investments in exploration of oil, water supply and food. India and China have the capital to expand and invest in Africa and Latin America."

But real tensions remain between the two powers. Nepal's new Maoist government is cozying up to China much to India's consternation. India still hosts the Dalai Lama. "The economies are going gangbusters but they are fragile," says [Bill] Emmott. "If there are economic difficulties, countries start to score domestic points by confronting neighbors."

He points to one obvious fault line. If a U.S. administration, frustrated with Pakistani inaction on Islamic militants, decides to launch attacks on Pakistan, India would be tempted to invade from the south while America attacks from the Afghan border. "What would be China's reaction?" wonders Emmott. "There's a chance it would cooperate – it's worried about its Xinjian separatists, who have relationships with terrorists in Pakistan. But it would be equally worried about such an invasion."

More optimistically, Emmott says the 21st Century may well be "an Asian century" but one in which "a shallow version of the EU" evolves in Asia. "And America will have to co-opt into that Asia," says Jagdish Sheth.

Indeed, the short order cook-turned kung-fu champ in "CC2C" doesn't dream of America as he lugs bags of potatoes through Delhi's alleyways. "My destiny is in China," he says.

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