Making China-India moves smooth as silk

The visit to India last week by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as President Xi Jinping's special envoy, spoke volumes about a relationship that should be more natural. An unfortunate war and border disagreements haunt the giant neighbours, half a century on. Cultural and tourist exchange is slight, a surprise considering how Buddhism cut a path between the civilisations in classical times.

Symbolism tends to embellish their dealings: Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang made India his first overseas call last year after he entered office, and was the first foreign leader to phone Mr Narendra Modi after he was sworn in last month. But the leader of the "new" post-Congress India will be visiting Japan and the United States in coming months, with China not yet scheduled.

Does form matter that much? It would be intriguing to know what Beijing makes of the courtship ritual, as the US and Japan happen to be its principal rivals for India's attention in both strategic and economic spheres. Japanese leader Shinzo Abe has even hinted that a US-Japan-India strategic triumvirate could eventuate.

Yet economic necessity ought to bring India and China closer when both economies are slowing, India's alarmingly so. They can feed off each other. With 2.5 billion consumers between them, policymakers should be thinking of more trade connections but this is far from being the case. If only the two nations could overcome anti-competitive instincts and the old security bogey, they would be complementing each other's strengths to hasten progress.

China can stoke India's manufacturing industries and expedite its infrastructure building (reportedly budgeted at US$1 trillion, or S$1.25 trillion, over five years), while India's cutting-edge information-communication technologies and pharmaceuticals will find ready buyers in China. Add to that the tourism that might take off with better air links (despite the forbidding mountain range that separates them), the potential in tradables would be enormous. If a synergy is seeded, the two nations would modernise faster and cut down on the considerable poverty in their interiors.

This was in sum the message Mr Wang Yi and emissaries before him brought to India. Mr Modi visited China several times on economic missions when he was a state chief minister. China sees profit in the connection, however loose. But now Mr Modi is prime minister of a country marked for a defining role in the geo-politics of Asia and the contest between China and the US. He will take his time to size up the state of play and where India should stand. But, grand strategising apart, there is the humdrum economy to see to and a clamour for jobs to satisfy. China's leaders know this truism well.

This article was first published on June 18, 2014.
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