Indians may be suspicious of China and the Chinese of India. But it is the West which does not want to accept the strategic consequences of a rising Asia.

Behind the heavy typeface that the release of confidential American diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks has generated lie smaller stories which sometimes tell us more about the way in which our world is changing than the headlines themselves.

The U.S. ambassador in Paris met Michel Rocard, a former Prime Minister of France, in October 2005 for one of those sweeping, freewheeling chats that Gallic statesmen evidently specialise in. The bulk of the conversation deals with the French political scene but at the end, M. Rocard shares his concerns about the place of France and the United States in the new world order and proposes a joint Euro-American think-tank to prepare for the future. “Speaking of the growth of India and China, along with all the other challenges confronting both of us,” the leaked cable quotes the senior French politician as saying, “We need a vehicle where we can find solutions for these challenges together — so when these monsters arrive in 10 years, we will be able to deal with them.”

So there we have it. Even as the Indian elephant and Chinese dragon circle each other warily, wondering how each will cope with the rise of the other, the Occidental mind which has enjoyed dominating the world and the global commons for two centuries is worrying about how to deal with the combined arrival of these two “monsters.”

Happily for the West, the arrivistes are not exactly on the best of terms with each other. India is too wary of China's rise to exploit the opportunities this ascent provides. For its part, Beijing — which alternates between feigning indifference towards New Delhi and fretting over whether it might join hands with a “democratic bloc” led by Washington — is so self-absorbed that it is unable to harness the externalities that India's rise has generated in the region.

In a recent article, Kishore Mahbubani spoke of the triangular relationship between India, China and the U.S. and noted how the U.S. had better relations with both India and China than the two Asian giants had with each other. By being in the middle, he argues, Washington has a strategic edge. It also has an incentive to ensure a certain amount of tension between India and China, so as to cement its own presence in Asia as an offshore balancer.

Though Mahbubani does not say so, it would be naïve to imagine the problems the Indian and Chinese sides have with one another are the product of an American conspiracy. The fact is that India and China do not know each other well and have not paid enough attention to understanding the social, political and economic dynamics of the other. As a result, misperceptions and misunderstandings abound and have given rise to suspicions and even fear. That is why it is essential that a continuous and wide-ranging dialogue take place between different stakeholders: officials, politicians, the military, scholars, journalists, artists and others. Above all, there must be engagement on the big strategic questions of our time.

In a series of interactions held recently in Beijing at the initiative of the Observer Research Foundation and the International Department of the Communist Party of China, Indian and Chinese analysts had a surprisingly frank exchange of views on the state of the bilateral relationship, the problem areas and the new areas for potential China-India cooperation.

From the Chinese side, a number of scholars spoke of four specific problem areas with India. There is, first and foremost, the unsettled boundary and the fact that border territories are disputed. Second, the presence of the Dalai Lama and the so-called ‘Tibetan government in exile' is seen as a continuing irritant, especially in the aftermath of the disturbances which shook Lhasa and some other Tibetan pockets in China in 2008. Third, and this was surprising, the scholars acknowledged that China's friendship with Pakistan was a source of friction with India. And though they differed from the Indian side in characterising the current nature of the relationship, they acknowledged the fact that “balancing India” used to be a primary Chinese motive in the past. Their argument was that the rise of the Indian economy in the past decade has forced Chinese policymakers to de-hyphenate their South Asian policy. Finally, many of the Chinese interlocutors spoke of growing strategic suspicions that are made worse by a trust deficit. “Many people in China believe Indians look down upon them,” a professor from the International Relations department of Renmin University said. “India sees itself as close to the West and is willing to be used by the U.S. in its desire to become a world power.” Other scholars echoed the same view in different ways — that India might become part of an American-led effort to gang-up against China, that many in India subscribe to the ‘China threat' thesis.

My own assessment is that the boundary dispute and Dalai Lama are not major problem areas. Indeed, my suspicion is that part of the recent brittleness in the relationship is the product of artificially accelerated efforts to settle the boundary question. As for the Tibetan spiritual leader, it is true that his presence in India is a red rag to those in China who see him as working against the unity and integrity of their country. But the Chinese side can also well appreciate the consequences of his being asked to leave India. A Hollywood exile for the Dalai Lama would only serve to raise the salience of the Tibetan issue globally. Besides, it is time China and India also start paying attention to what might happen to the Tibetan question once the present Dalai Lama is no more. And start engaging each other, and Bangladesh as the lowest riparian, on Tibetan water-related projects.

Responding to Indian queries on China's plans to harness the Brahmaputra, a scholar from the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations spoke of the need for the comprehensive development of Himalayan hydropower resources. Citing Indian projects in Bhutan as a positive model, he said India's trust deficit with its neighbours like Pakistan and Nepal was coming in the way of the development of hydropower.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, it is obvious that China and India have a crucial stake in the stability of that country and need to discuss between them what they can do to help the situation there. The Chinese side is well aware of the emerging ideological and institutional fault lines in Pakistan. If there is any country other than the U.S. that has the ability to exercise leverage over the Pakistani military, it is China. Until now, however, China has been reluctant to use its influence. For more than four decades, Chinese strategic thinking on Pakistan has been dominated by the need to ‘balance' India. But with India having outgrown South Asia and Pakistan in danger of imploding as the problem of extremism and terrorism slowly gets out of control, Beijing cannot afford to remain wedded to this anachronistic mindset.

On strategic issues too, the Indian and Chinese sides have much to talk about. India and China are both officially committed to an open, inclusive architecture for the Asia-Pacific region. Both also have a stake in the freedom of navigation. During the visit to India by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, the two countries committed their navies to joint anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. A commitment was also made to discuss the wider issue of maritime security. These are all promising new areas of cooperation that should be actively pursued. One Chinese scholar spoke of the need for strategic transparency, another made a pitch to launch new security principles by updating the Panchasila concept. Of course, such an effort is unlikely to go beyond the reiteration of homilies unless China and India both recognise that the world and their own national profiles have moved on since the 1950s. It has become a cliché to say the world is big enough to accommodate the rise of India and China. Since the world is a finite place, this means those who are today squatting on strategic space despite their leases having run out will have to be displaced. Let the West have nightmares about demons and monsters. The elephant and the dragon cannot afford to be scared of each other.