This week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made his last visit to China as India's head of state, a prolonged exercise in great-power pageantry and platitudinousness. After all, we are allegedly living in the Asian century, though we may have to wait a little longer for these two countries to jointly turn the balance of power in the world eastward.
In Beijing, Singh did his bit to keep to the Asian century script. "More than ever before, the world needs both countries to prosper together," he said. "What is at stake is the future of India and China; indeed, what may be at stake is the future of our region and our world." Speaking at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party -- a "rare honour," according to one Indian newspaper -- he also said:
Relations between India and China are unique in the world. We are two continuous ancient civilizations. We are neighbors with a long history of cultural, spiritual and economic ties. We both embarked on a new phase of our political histories around the same time. Today, we are the world’s two most populous nations, engaged in a process of socio-economic transformation of our people on a scale and at a pace unprecedented in human history.
India and China have indeed made momentous contributions to each other's history. Buddhism came to China from India early in the Common Era, and flourished there even as it faded away in the country of its origin. It traveled via the Silk Road, the trade route going from China across India into west Asia and Europe, allowing for a commingling of peoples and technologies that reverberated across the two civilizations.
Yet in the era of the nation-state, matters are somewhat more prosaic, and the reality far short of the rhetoric. Ahead of this week's meeting between Singh and Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, both sides had hoped to agree on a "liberalized visa regime" that would allow an Indian businessman, for example, to visit China without applying repeatedly for six-month visas, the maximum currently allowed.
This effort fell through after China made it clear that it would continue to treat visitors from the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which China lays claim to, and calls "south Tibet") differently from other Indian nationals. About the only substantive development agreed on by the two countries over the course of Singh's visit was something called the "Border Defense Cooperation Agreement," in which both sides agreed to scale down recent tensions across the 2,400-mile (3,860-kilometer) border, such as the incursion by a Chinese squadron in April.
That particular episode took place just before Li's visit to India in May, suggesting that the Chinese wanted to discombobulate their largest neighbor before they arrived at the negotiating table.
Singh faced heavy criticism at home in his second term for letting India's growth rate drop off, and he would have liked to oversee some major advances in relations with either Pakistan or China before he leaves office. But he has found himself persistently sidetracked. Behind the ambitious rhetoric about cooperation kept up by both sides, China and India continue to operate under the shadow of mistrust generated by the short war the two newly independent countries fought 50 years ago.
China's military support to Pakistan and India's longstanding offer of a safe haven to the Dalai Lama of Tibet have prevented the deepening of relations, and the emergence of both countries as major economic powers has also made them geopolitical rivals, liable to think of progress as a zero-sum game. (The foreign-policy analyst Mohan Malik calls the idea that China and India will join hands to forge a new center of power in the global economy the "Chindia myth"). To be sure, trade between the two Asian powerhouses has increased significantly on Singh's watch, to more than $70 billion a year (mostly to China's advantage). But the sticking-points still outweigh the advances.
And political and economic asymmetries make it hard for the two countries to do meaningful business. As the leader of a democracy, Singh is answerable to many constituencies at home in a way that the Chinese leadership is not, which means that he could never have surprised the Chinese with sudden, mysterious maneuvers such as the Depsang incursion of April. As the greater economic power by some distance, China may actually gain from disputes of mainly symbolic significance. Or, as the veteran journalist MJ Akbar wrote recently, "China takes what it can from Delhi, and snubs India when it wants."
Indeed, it would appear that while India's deepest desire in the realm of foreign policy is to think of itself -- and be treated in turn -- as China's equal, the truth is that India spends a lot more time thinking about China than vice versa. While Singh's trip was headline news each day in the major Indian newspapers -- as Li's visit in May had been -- Indians searching the English-language media in China for news of their prime minister's reception would have found themselves scanning the "briefly noted" section. For example, this brusque five-sentence report from the state-owned Xinhua News Agency.
Not a very promising situation, then, and one from which nothing of great significance emerged. It seems that Singh will take his leave of Sino-Indian relations just where he found them: as an intractable, if low-intensity game, one in which the same back-and-forth moves offer the illusion of progress.
Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel Arzee the Dwarf is published by New York Review Books.