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Why cooperation with China matters

Why cooperation with China matters
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First Published: Thu, Jan 17 2008. 12 17 AM IST
Updated: Thu, Jan 17 2008. 12 17 AM IST
There are some telling signs of economic rapprochement between China and India.
During wintry mornings in Gurgaon, home to call centres, offshore software companies and luxury high-rises near India’s Capital, New Delhi, dozens of busy Chinese 20- and 30-somethings rush off to work in software companies and manufacturing facilities.
This is extraordinary. There were no Chinese in Gurgaon just a few years ago. As I grew up in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, the only Chinese I met were those who ran (excellent) restaurants. Indians did not use polite terms while referring to the few Chinese in their midst, and Chinese elsewhere reciprocated with disdain. Now Gurgaon’s Chinese are part of the local fabric.
A similar scenario is unfolding in China. Scarcely any Chinese treat Indians as unusual in Hangzhou, the centre for India’s software companies in China. My Indian passport used to provoke a second look by Chinese immigration officials; now it barely registers.
But this is not the first time that Hangzhou, a couple of hours’ drive from Shanghai, has linked China and India. Sixteen hundred years ago, a monk from India built the Lingyin Si Buddhist temple there. On the walls of the temple today, I recognized a rock inscription of the “Om” symbol, an invocation in many Indian prayers.
These examples of religious and technological exchange, separated by many centuries, illustrate a sometimes forgotten history of Chinese-Indian cooperation. More than 1,500 years ago, Emperor Yang had set up a sizeable Buddhist translation bureau in Luoyang in the western Henan Province, at the mouth of the Silk Road.
“The mechanics of translation were not easy,” says Tansen Sen, a Sinologist in New York. “Translation often involved up to four people—one reciting the Sanskrit texts, one translating, one scribe and then the fourth proofreading. It was very ritualistic, involving big entourages of monks that were housed in monasteries and survived on patronage, both from merchants and monarchs.”
As business patronized the translation bureaus needed to bring Buddhist texts to China, Buddhism lubricated the wheels of commerce.
The Chinese-Indian symbiosis was so successful that Peking University philosopher professor Hu Shih, speaking at Harvard University’s Tercentenary celebrations in 1937, chose as his subject the “Indianization” of China, calling it as massive a case of cultural borrowing, by the Chinese from Indians, as the Christianization of Europe.
Former Indian prime ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, searching for economic links to China, started their tours in 1993 and 2003, respectively, in Luoyang, where Buddhism first arrived from India to China. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and President Hu Jintao, in subsequent visits to India, alluded to centuries of Buddhist interaction then and to software now. So did the governor of Henan Province and the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.
And at the annual conference of India’s software industry association next month in Mumbai, numerous Chinese delegations are signed up to be present.
The Chinese in India and the Indians in China represent the beginning of an economic rapprochement that might well offset decades of animus. Admittedly, there is still ample suspicion. And it is true that each country will continue to flex its military muscle as it seeks to protect its borders and indulge in newfound economic confidence—China’s blue-water navies, India’s nuclear weapons. But the main story is the growing entrepreneurship in both countries and the recognition in both countries that they can help each other develop economically.
Buddhism is, of course, symbolism. But symbols are powerful. It is part of the common language that will continue to improve Chinese-Indian relations. Why else would astute politicians tap into this common vein?
Sino-Indian relations are now based on corporate rather than religious ties. China’s telecom equipment giant Huawei, a thorn in Cisco’s side, taps into hundreds of software engineers in southern India, and India’s Mahindra and Mahindra combines design expertise from Nashik in western India with efficient manufacturing in a plant in Nanchang in China, to ship tractors from Phoenix to Houston to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
India’s NIIT Ltd runs dozens of software training programs across the length and breadth of China. In the ultimate irony, the state-owned oil and gas enterprises of both countries are learning to cooperate in their search for energy resources around the world, shifting the focus of historically warring countries to economic cooperation.
The belief that China and India will hurriedly borrow from the West as they accumulate power and influence is erroneous. Much of their borrowing will be from each other, as it was centuries ago. Appreciating this mutual learning is crucial to understanding how these resurgent nations will exert their newfound influence.
Tarun Khanna is the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School and author of Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India are Reshaping their Futures and Yours.
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First Published: Thu, Jan 17 2008. 12 17 AM IST