China Outshines US at a Delhi Conference

China has managed to present a surprisingly more friendly and forward-looking face than the US at an Asia Society conference in New Delhi, where the theme was "India – Powering Asia's Ascent."

The US might have been expected to be the cheerleader for such a theme, but it was Victor Zhikai Gao, a westernized Beijing adviser, who enthusiastically called for China and India to see their disputed Himalayan mountain border "not as an insurmountable barrier" but as a "bridge linking these two ancient civilizations together, for mutual benefit, and for mutual enrichment" – while a senior US official merely recited a years-old list of economic reforms that American business wants India to implement.

Gao appeared to be sticking to Beijing's firm negotiating stance on the border dispute, but his remarks nevertheless contrasted sharply with a warning on a Beijing website last year that "China and India cannot really deal with each other harmoniously".

In response to an email asking Gao, now back in Beijing, to repeat and expand on what he said,, he replied that Chinese people came to India "many many centuries ago …. as eager and humble students in search of enlightenment and spiritual richness…and brought Buddhism back to China."

"To the extent that Hinduism and Buddhism share many basic tenets and principles today, the Chinese and the Hinduists in India are more or less soul-mates, or at least quasi soul-mates to say the least," he added.

"For me and many Chinese, coming to visit to India is the equivalent of a spiritual pilgrimage. From the Chinese perspective, India still remains a land of saints and a plethora of gods and divinity, and we see from all the faces among the multitudinous crowds the shadows of those Buddhist monks who have been immortalized in numerous Chinese Buddhist temples and Chinese minds".

Links between the two countries were also extolled by Jairam Ramesh, India's environment minister and India's chief international negotiator on climate change issues. He told the conference about "remarkable co-operation" between the two countries in climate change negotiations at Copenhagen last December, and on studying shrinking glaciers.

He admitted that both countries were using each other for their own reasons, but added: "Partnership with China is a strategic message that we can collaborator and co-operate," even when the media was polarizing differences. "Negotiating with China is a headache for the United States. But negotiating with both India and China together is a nightmare", he added with a grin.

Gao had the same theme. "Rather than confronting each other, we need to find ways to work together," he said, adding (without actually mentioning the US) that "India and China should avoid being used as pawns by forces from outside the region."

Compared with that, the US contribution was unimaginative. Robert Blake, America's assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, made a speech that could have been delivered any time in the past 15 years, focusing on economic reforms that would benefit American companies. He also notably avoided mentioning Wal-Mart, the US retail group that engenders opposition in many countries, and used instead its Indian joint venture name of Best Price when calling for India to open up its supermarkets to more foreign direct investment.

Timothy J. Roemer, the US ambassador, had made a more substantive speech earlier in the conference about education and how much he loved India, but memories of that were outweighed by Blake's shopping list which ended with the hackneyed cry: "India should continue to increase market access for American businesses, finance, and people," dangling the lollipop that "the United States will do the same" (which, as everyone knows, would never happen).

Note that he was not preaching how India would benefit from opening its economy to the world, but just to the US. Nor, more importantly, did he show any awareness of the pushes and pulls of Indian democracy, which he does in fact know well and fully understands, having been a well-informed and involved deputy ambassador in the mid 2000s. Such, apparently, is American public policy today.

Deng Xiaoping's former interpreter

But to return to Gao, should India see what he said as a serious message from Beijing, or was it simply an instinctively effusive line from a man who runs private equity funds, is as well connected in capitalist Hong Kong as he is in communist Beijing, and is a member of the US-centric Asia Society's global council?

Gao's base however is more than that. He has a direct link with the Chinese government because he runs a Foreign Ministry-sponsored policy think tank, the China National Association of International Studies. He also worked in China's foreign ministry in the 1980s when he was a translator for former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

Last August, the belligerent piece on a Beijing website gained considerable traction because it seemed to fit the mood of the times, when China was confronting India on several fronts including the two countries' mountainous border.

"There cannot be two suns in the sky. China and India cannot really deal with each other harmoniously," said the article, adding that China could "dismember the so-called 'Indian Union' with one little move". That was seen as reflecting Beijing thinking, even though the founder of the website claimed the writer had no known government links.

The author of that message remained anonymous, but now we have a very different line from a far from anonymous source, and one directly linked with the foreign ministry – so does this also fit the mood of the times? Though it is unthinkable that China has changed its long policy of encircling and containing India, does it indicate a change of tack when its relations with the US are souring?

When I asked Gao at the conference how he could be so positive, he avoided detail and took me to see a satellite photograph that was on display of China and India with the high Himalayas between them. How, he asked, could a war could be fought in such steep terrain?

Easily, I said, by air over the mountains peaks. And anyway, China was constantly crossing the border in moves that reminded India uncomfortably of its humiliating defeat in a 1962 border war. Gao reminded me that China had retreated to its pre-war positions, but I countered that by pointing to China refusing to recognize India's sovereignty over its border state of Arunachal Pradesh – a problem that Gao indicated should not be taken too seriously.

The McMahon Line

"We should refuse to be held hostage by some recent unfortunate events for which neither China nor India should be held responsible, since they originated in the British rule of India before," he said in his e-mail today. He was referring, without naming it, to the McMahon Line that was set in 1914 by the British long before India's independence. India now regards the line as its rightful border but China disputes it.

That statement reduces some of the diplomatic significance of Gao's remarks because it seems in effect to be asking for the McMahon Line to be ignored, which India will not do. It reinforces the general view of people I spoke to at the conference that he was not indicating a dramatic change in Beijing's approach.

But his friendly message was surely not without significance, so let's give him the last word:

The Chinese, he said, "share a collective sense of gratitude for India for having provided the spiritual richness which has so splendidly filled the spiritual void in the traditional Chinese civilization. This should be the foundation upon which China-India relations should be built upon and thrive".

John Elliott is a former Financial Times correspondent based in New Delhi and is the author of the blog 'Riding the Elephant,' which appears elsewhere in Asia Sentinel.