Can trade between the two neighbours be stepped up and on to a more egalitarian level?
Not without reason. The men and women from the Dragon Kingdom brought expertise to Calcutta and had made the city their home. There were Chinese dentists, Chinese dry-cleaners, Chinese shoe-makers, and most importantly, there were Chinese restaurateurs.
In fact, Chinese cuisine was extremely popular in Calcutta, and the city served as a springboard for the food to make its way to the other parts of the country.
To top it all, there were at least two Chinese newspapers published out of Calcutta.
But the 1962 border war between China and India changed all this. It vitiated the atmosphere, and Calcuttans, who had held the Chinese doctors and businessmen in high esteem for their dedication and quality of service, began to look upon them with suspicion, as virtual aggressors of a land that was then steeped in Gandhian values of peace and non-violence.
In the years following the war, most of Calcutta’s Chinese, unable to face the animosity of the locals, migrated to Canada and Australia.
Today, 50 years after the war, which killed 3,000 Indian army officers and jawans, people in the Tawang Valley – the scene of the battle – in India’s north-eastern State of Arunachal Pradesh still remember the bloody episode. Sometimes with fond nostalgia!
During the two-week occupation of the valley by the Chinese, who declared a unilateral ceasefire and marched out quietly, they helped Indian farmers harvest that year’s wheat crop. The Chinese soldiers never misbehaved, and were always willing to help the locals, even playing the game of Tibetan mahjong with them.
The Chinese in a week-long assault captured much of Arunachal Pradesh and a slice of Kashmir in Western India.
Although Beijing and New Delhi established diplomatic relations in 1976, the border question has remained an irritant. Undoubtedly, China was an aggressor, and it had invaded India mainly to gain control over Aksai Chin, a lofty plain connecting the Chinese province of Xinjiang with Tibet.
In recent decades, both China and India have made claims and counter-claims. New Delhi says that an area as big as Switzerland in the northern part of India is its own. The region is now under Chinese occupation.
Beijing avers that an area three times the size of Switzerland in Arunachal Pradesh is rightfully China’s.
In recent years, Beijing has begun to call Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet. Sometime ago, it refused to issue a visa to an Indian official from Arunachal Pradesh saying that he was a Chinese citizen and therefore needed no formal permit to enter China. At other times, Beijing has been issuing special visas for those living in Kashmir and Arunachal.
All this has understandably annoyed New Delhi.
Yet, the two nations, which together hold 40% of the world’s total population, continue to trade, and this is expected to touch US$60 billion this year.
However, in some ways this trade is unfair. Over 70% of the exports from India to China are in the form of raw material, mainly iron ore. This smacks of a colonial type of arrangement.
On the other hand, most of India’s imports from China are finished products. And in the absence of a robust manufacturing sector in India, the country’s business is forced to buy from China, known for its degrading sweat-shops, cheap labour and inexpensive goods, which are not necessarily of reliable quality.
In India, shops especially those selling electronic goods and baby products, stock Chinese stuff, making a neat killing though huge margins.
The average Indian consumer is forced to buy these, because there are no viable options available for him. Take goodies for the baby, and the range which China offers is wide. There is nothing comparable being made in India.
There are several questions now. Can trade between the two neighbours be stepped up and on to a more egalitarian level? Will the political disagreement over the border affect trade or at least stop it from reaching its full potential?
Beijing and New Delhi must learn to co-exist by promoting the region’s economic wellbeing. But a political understanding over the border needs to be addressed before that, and the two must cease to act as rivals.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.