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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Two giant nations, but little interaction Despite improved ties, exchanges between Chinese and Indian people are limited

January 16, 2008

Chow Chung-yan
12 January 2008
South China Morning Post

In China's best-known mythological classic, Journey to the West, the
four pilgrims on the road to enlightenment have to battle dangers and
hardship to reach the land of Buddha - India.

Today, travelling across the Himalayas is fast, convenient and largely
hazard-free, but few Chinese now look to India for inspiration.

Relations between the two emerging Asian giants remained frosty for
decades after a border war in 1962, even though the two sides had
previously enjoyed predominantly peaceful exchanges for millennia. Ties
have, however, improved considerably in recent years.

With both nations eyeing economic superpower status, they understand the
need for a peaceful and co-operative environment.

Trade between the two largest developing countries has picked up fast,
growing tenfold, from a meagre US$1.8 billion in 1999 to US$18.7 billion
in 2005. Bilateral trade is expected to hit the US$20 billion mark this
year, according to Beijing.

Official visits between New Delhi and Beijing are frequent. The two
nations, whose disputes over large areas of territory remain unresolved,
held a landmark joint military exercise in Yunnan province last month
and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's three-day visit to China,
beginning tomorrow, is certain to cement ties further.

Both governments say they plan to sign a series of co-operative
agreements, although a major breakthrough on the territory issue is
unlikely.

Despite their improved relations, even the most optimistic observers
know China and India are hardly close friends.

"The best way to describe [the relationship] is that India no longer
sees us as an enemy. They may see us as a rival or a competitor, but at
least not a threat," said Ma Jiali , a veteran India watcher with the
Academy of China Contemporary International Relations.

Many western observers point to the territorial disputes, the issues of
Pakistan and Tibet , geopolitical factors and even the two countries'
different political systems as the main obstacles in the Sino-Indian
relationship.

But one important area that has been overlooked is the lack of
exchanges, and the common misunderstandings, among the peoples of the
two ancient civilisations.

The history of direct contact between the two peoples can be traced back
at least 2,000 years. For instance, Buddhism, a religion that originated
in India, has become the most influential and widely adopted religion in
China. But such enriching exchanges have broken down in modern times.

Today, despite their geographic proximity and their growing importance
in world affairs, there are few exchanges at non-government level. Only
60,000 mainlanders visited India in 2006, a tiny fraction of the 34.52
million outbound Chinese travellers that year, according to figures from
the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. About 400,000 Indians, mostly traders
and students, travelled in the opposite direction, but that still
represents a small percentage of the overall outbound tourists from the
South Asian giant.

With a combined population exceeding 2.3 billion, the figures are
depressingly low.

About 200 Chinese students enrolled in Indian universities in 2006 - a
tenfold increase from a decade ago but a laughable comparison with the
number of students the two countries send to the United States.

"We have had great improvement in people exchange and cultural exchange
in the past few years. But the number is really not in line with the
size of the two countries. It is really not enough," said Professor Ma,
a member of the Chinese delegations in several previous rounds of
bilateral talks.

Against this background, misunderstanding and stereotyping are commonplace.

"Many of my friends thought it was a great misfortune for me when I told
them that my company would send me to India," said Wang Xiong, , a
mainland business representative living in Mumbai. "Some were really
surprised when I told them India also had high-rises and modern
supermarkets.

"It is strange that even though we are neighbours and had direct
contacts so long ago, the two peoples know much more about the United
States than they know about each other."

Media reports on each other are scanty and often filled with errors and
prejudice.

"Some mainland media are biased in their reports of India. Some Indian
newspapers are also not very fair when reporting China," Professor Ma
said. The lack of widespread personal exchanges had made it difficult
for the two countries to build mutual trust and deepen their ties, he said.

But all this could change. Interest in each other has been rekindled
recently, driven mainly by the strong economic performance of the two
countries.

Mr Wang said: "Many people have started to feel curious about India. My
friends have asked me about India's software industry and medicine
industry. I can sense the perceptions are gradually changing."

Ranajit Dam, a young Indian journalist based in Shenzhen, said curiosity
about China attracted him to work on the mainland after graduating from
a US university.

"China and India are both undergoing tremendous changes. But China is so
different from India. I always wanted to come here and get a different
experience," Dam said.

"I think actually I fit in quite well. Among young [Chinese] people,
they are actually quite interested in India. And I'm surprised to find
that there is an Indian community in Shenzhen."

Professor Ma said he was hopeful that exchanges between the two peoples
would gradually increase, with people from the younger generation like
Mr Wang and Dam taking the lead. He said the two governments had agreed
to hold regular cultural events to promote mutual understanding.

"Some people think that because we are both developing countries we have
little to learn from each other," Professor Ma said. "That is wrong.

"China is now trying to build a harmonious society. We certainly can
learn something from Indians' experience, such as their diversified
culture, their tolerance to different things and their views on religion."

C. Raja Mohan, a professor of South Asian studies at Nanyang
Technological University in Singapore, agreed.

"There has been a long history of limited contacts [between the two
countries], but I think it's beginning to change now. More people will
be travelling between the two countries due to more economic
interaction," he said.

Additional reporting by Kristine Kwok
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