Eastern Union

/ by Mara Hvistendahl /

What will happen when the two most populous nations on Earth join scientific forces?

Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

In 1956, China started building a road through Aksai Chin, a remote region of the Himalayas claimed by India. When Indian leaders learned about the move—which, due to the area’s inaccessibility, didn’t happen until a couple of years later—they were incensed. By 1962, the two countries were battling it out between the peaks of the Himalayas in what’s now known as the Sino-Indian War. Today, though shelling has stopped, the border dispute persists. Every few years, there’s a diplomatic row that serves, more than anything else, to keep political and cultural exchanges between these two neighboring giants to a minimum.

There may be an opening, however, as both nations realize their mutual scientific ambitions. China and India both possess rich science-cultural legacies: Prior to the 15th century when the European renaissance surged, the Chinese were consistent technological and scientific innovators, while among other significant advances, Indian mathematicians invented the decimal system. Today, both China and India are focusing heavily on scientific investment—China in areas like stem cell research and nanoscience and India in information technology. As these two nations strive to develop and innovate, they have started to look across their fractious frontier and agree to work together for mutual scientific gain.

In 2005, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Indian tech hub Bangalore to promote Sino-Indian cooperation in technology. The next year, Chinese and Indian science ministers signed a memorandum of understanding that outlined cooperation in areas like agriculture, biotechnology, and health. A few months later, both presidents—each a scientist by training—agreed to promote science and technology as one of ten key areas of cooperation between the two nations. And in October of last year, during a trip to Beijing’s top science school, Tsinghua University, Indian Congress President Sonia Gandhi proposed that through science the two countries were forging a relationship based on “pragmatism and mutual self-interest.”

The implications of pooling the two countries’ strengths—drawing on what Wen terms the “two pagodas” of China’s hardware and India’s software—could be profound. China and India are the two most populous nations on earth, together comprising 38 percent of the world’s population. They’re teaming up in areas in which they have been historically strong to bolster already impressive industrial and economic growth. But the potential policy lessons of such science and technology sharing might deliver their own long-term results. With the entire developing world looking to China and India as leaders, a successful commitment to social and economic development based on science transfer could have wide-ranging influence. In Africa, Southeast Asia, South America and the Middle East, moves are being made to adopt science development and diplomacy approaches, but the uptake has been, in many cases, slow. Scientific cooperation between the two largest developing nations on Earth that are still technically at war, in short, is the kind of endorsement that science diplomacy and development analysts want to see. That the power of scientific thinking might overcome the posturing of political diplomacy on such a large scale bodes well, not just for the Indians and Chinese, but for the global science culture.

“Scientists can play a very valuable role in increasing and helping maintain engagement,” says Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science, he adds, can “be a catalyst for getting other things accomplished.” Before China, India used science to make tentative overtures toward Pakistan, with which it has fought three wars since 1947. In 2004, the science ministers of the two countries met for first time in Delhi to outline cooperation in nanotech, biotech, and information technology. “I am here to build bridges,” Pakistan’s minister for science, technology, and higher education Atta ur-Rahman told Science from the sidelines of the talks. The following year, an earthquake in Kashmir prompted the countries to cooperate on seismology—turning a disputed area into a source of cooperation.

Recently, the US State Department has taken tentative steps toward scientific collaboration in the Muslim Middle East, where the local opinion of American science far surpasses the local opinion of Americans in general. But elsewhere, the US government has scaled back these science development efforts. At the end of the Bush presidency, policymakers are now citing the work of countries like China and India as they advocate for renewed commitment to science development programs worldwide.

Recognizing the growing importance of science in international negotiations, in 2001 the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development launched the Science and Technology Diplomacy Initiative. “Science and technology has become a political issue for social and economic development,” explains Mongi Hamdi, chief of technology for development for UNCTAD. “Science is needed for almost every aspect of the economy.”

Both China and India now have large pools of scientists educated overseas to draw on for talent, a keen desire to move from labor to innovation, and similar spending goals for research and development. The side effects of fast-paced development may also be bringing these two nations together: The environment has become a main area of cooperation. Even as the two countries compete for oil, global anxiety about their growing greenhouse gas emissions has turned them into unlikely bedfellows in climate negotiations. Environmental scientists in both countries are now seizing the opportunity to work together. The Indian chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, sits on the China Council for International Cooperation on the Environment and Development, where he’s been a vocal advocate of cooperation on areas like renewable energy.

“Collaboration in science, in addressing innovation, climate change, and environmental issues, could bring India and China together,” says C. S. Kiang, dean of the College of Environmental Sciences at Peking University, who proposed a bilateral summit on climate change at an environmental conference in London last November. He’s now working with Indian colleagues to implement it.

In other areas, however, cooperation won’t be so smooth. Even the two countries’ varying scientific strengths—China’s hardware and India’s software—reflect deep differences in development approaches. The line among elites who shuttle between the two is that China succeeds because of its government while India succeeds in spite of its system. Whereas China can unveil sweeping programs designed to lure hotshot Chinese-born scientists back from the West, India’s success is more dependent on individual initiative. How these differences will come to bear on prospects for joint collaboration is still unclear.

Ultimately, for science to be an effective diplomatic tool it has to be supported with substantive governmental efforts in other areas. Last May, China annoyed India by denying a visa application to an Indian official from a border region, maintaining that the area the man helped govern was actually a part of China. Shen Dingli, an India specialist at the Institute of International Affairs at Shanghai’s Fudan University suggests the key obstacle to China and India’s full scientific engagement is the frontier. “Before the border issue is resolved, India will not view China as a friend.” (China, he adds, feels less threatened by India.)

But contentious borders can sometimes become points of cooperation. Korean scientists, for example, have banded together to preserve the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea—which, because it’s been isolated from human contact for 50 years, is rich in biodiversity. The China-India border straddles the Himalayas, an area that appeals to everyone from climate scientists to geologists. If individual scientists in both countries can look beyond their countries’ political differences to start collaborating on research, relations might see real progress. The barrier between these two countries, both literally and figuratively, may be, in the end, a great point of cooperation.

And that, says AAAS’s Turekian, is one of science’s greatest strengths. “Is it the panacea to solve problems? No. But even at the worst times of political fighting, it provides a way of keeping the communication lines open.”

Originally published March 14, 2008

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