The day India's 50-tonne nuclear-capable Agni 5 missile was successfully test-fired -- and brandished for its capability to strike Beijing and Shanghai -- I stood surrounded by posters of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in a dusty, century-old colonial house on Mumbai's seaside. I had a flashback of my life until last year in Beijing, as the gallery's curator who's never visited China narrated his conversations with his Chinese counterparts he met in South Korea in late-2010. The Chinese asked him 'What is Mumbai? Where is Mumbai?'
The Mumbai native, Sumesh Sharma, found himself patiently explaining to artists from India's largest neighbour that Mumbai is a city by the sea, in purpose what the financial powerhouse Shanghai is to China. The lone Chinese artist in the Chindian group who knew what Mumbai is happened to be a dissident, presently grounded in Beijing: Ai Weiwei, China's best-known artist-activist.
The combination of a military build-up based on rising strategic distrust and crawling progress on cross-border cultural awareness, are symptomatic of the dysfunctional bilateral relationship between Asia's largest nuclear-armed rivals.
That's why, over 24 hours after its test, Agni was on top of the 'most popular' online section of the Global Times. The State-run English-language tabloid is the most extreme example of Chinese spin on India. Since its launch in 2009, its editorials on India are drenched in the nationalist sentiment previously reserved for anti-American and anti-Japanese rhetoric in China. Missile tests, satellite and rocket launches dominate coverage about India even in evening dailies and youth papers, says a Xinhua editor who tracks Sino-Indian news.
"China remains at arm's length from its fellow BRICS State India,'' wrote Jonathan Fenby in his new book Tiger Head, Snake Tails.
"Though Buddhism travelled to China from India, the history of the Asian giants is one of distance through the centuries…'' The gulf is widening.
In 2009, 46% of Indians had a positive view of China; this number declined to 34% in 2010, according to the Pew Research Centre that studies global attitudes. Its research indicated that only a third of China's residents have a favourable overall opinion of India. Within Asia, a Pew report noted last year, only Indians held negative views on the Chinese economy. About 29% of Indians described an expanding Chinese economy as a good thing but 40% said it was 'a bad thing' for their country. The current $75-billion bilateral trade, though more than 10 times bigger than its size in 2000, is lopsided with unresolved disputes and a $27-billion deficit for India.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underscores 'cooperation' and 'competition' as the elements defining the Sino-Indian relationship. But for the present, competition is the buzzword. Seasoned diplomats admit to the lack of common and contemporary cultural elements besides Bollywood that can project soft power across the militarised borders.
The Chinese exhibition in Mumbai was not on calligraphy and porcelain exported from Beijing. The handful visitors to the gallery watched videos of documentaries posted from Beijing where Ai is under a gag order. The curator sensed 'cultural indifference' from the Chinese art community to explore India. Indians on their part baulk at importing Chinese art through the maze of State controls on creativity.
Diplomatic events where New Delhi meets Beijing are marked by all the right statements on expanding economic and cultural ties despite the decades-old boundary dispute. When it comes to putting the promises in practice, the two governments that can roll out hi-tech weaponry seem incapable of doing simple tasks like arranging native Chinese teachers for Mandarin courses in Indian schools.
When I met Ai in Beijing, the artist said he was keen to travel to India and forge linkages with its intellectuals. India's China model will be genuinely successful when regular Chinese tourists and artists, not just democracy activists, discover an urban legend called Mumbai. Until then, the cross-border hype will be limited to the latest additions to the series of India's Agni (fire) and China's Dongfeng (east wind).