Dragon finds use for Cobra

March 17, 2000

China is courting India, seeing it as the key to high-tech English-speaking western markets, writes Wang Gungwu

Improved diplomatic relations between India and China will not have dramatic effects on scholarly and student exchanges between the two countries, but the longer term consequences are worth noting.

Certain areas of higher education are likely to be influenced: the question of information technology skills and mastering the English language; more scholarly attention in East Asia towards South Asian affairs, especially in matters concerning inter-regional trade; and, not least, the intriguing issue of how successful the Chinese diaspora has been worldwide as compared with its Indian equivalent.

The explosion of financial interest in information technology and commerce during the past months in Asia has highlighted shortages of local personnel of the highest quality and of people really fluent in English. Unlike with the size-

able educated middle class in India, there simply is not the supply of fluent users of English in China.

More astonishingly, after a century and a half of deliberate learning from the West, Japan's prime minister has publicly regretted the low standard of English among young Japanese students. He could have spoken for China's president on this point, insofar as he was worried for Japan's capacity to compete globally in the information technology area.

During visits to Delhi and Hong Kong, the issue was underlined for me. Surprisingly, Indian academic friends shook their heads at the number of their undergraduate students who had great difficulty reading books and learned articles in English. My first thought was that they must have higher requirements in mind. After all, it is well known that Indian information technology engineers and entrepreneurs have a distinct advantage over all other Asians at Silicon Valley because English is like a first language to most of them.

In Hong Kong, there were no surprises. Comments about the low standard of English spoken and written there were repeated to me as they have been every time the question has been asked for the past ten years. This time, however, there were additional references to worries about the standard of English rising fast on the Chinese mainland. And for the first time, I heard a comparison in the context of the great shortage of skilled information technology graduates in Hong Kong. I heard that this is where the Chinese cannot match the Indians.

Often it was said that decades of relative neglect of Indian affairs have hindered closer understanding between the two countries, and that efforts must be made to remedy that omission. On mainland China, there had been serious studies of the geopolitics of South Asia.

Elsewhere, Chinese Buddhists have made pilgrimages to India's holy places, but none of the universities of Greater China had major centres for the study of India. Scholars in China have long deplored the lack of Chinese students of modern Indian languages. My sinology colleagues in India had also lamented the shortage of expertise in contemporary Chinese affairs.

If all this is coupled with the successful visit of Singapore's prime minister to India and the favourable reports about that in the East Asian media generally, it is clear that a new era in which India is much more than a blip on the East Asian horizon has at long last arrived. Not since Nehru's historic visit to the Bandung conference 45 years ago has there been such favourable attention given to India among Chinese political and business elites.

Apart from questions as to how much damage has been done by this gap during the past four decades and how the revival of historic ties might be managed in the years to come, the most intriguing question is, why the renewed interest now? Geopolitics after the end of the cold war would be relevant. Improvements in relations between the United States and India, on the one hand, and between Russia and China, on the other, have helped. Perhaps the relative cooling of relations between China and Pakistan is another factor.

The view that attracted most attention concerns the East Asian economic "miracle", the financial crisis of 1997-1999, and the fact that India was so late in responding to what that region had achieved. It has been widely noted that India's economic reforms began at a time when Japan's contributions towards the rise of the East Asian "Tigers" had lessened. For the past ten years, there has not only been the end of the cold war, but also the Japanese financial "freeze". The region waited hopefully for Japan to resume its growth, but in vain. It seems time for some parts of the region to look westwards, even as India woke up to the fact that the Japanese helping hand was no longer as potent as before and new initiatives are needed in eastern Asia.

It is in this context that comparing the roles of the Chinese and Indians overseas has become more interesting. After all, there are almost as many Indians abroad - some 20 million as compared to about 25 million Chinese. Why have the Indians not invested in India as much as the Chinese are known to have done in China? Are the two diasporas so different in their attitudes towards their ancestral homes?

There have been numerous studies of the Chinese overseas during the past century. Many, especially those written by non-Chinese journalists and scholars, have concentrated on their political activities, including fears about their loyalties to the countries in which they settled. Only recently has there been fresh attention paid to their business and entrepreneurial skills. Comparable studies of the Indians overseas have been fewer. But the new interest in Sino-Indian relations is likely to stimulate a spate of comparative studies on the two diasporas. Wang Gungwu is director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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