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China-India Cooperation In Science And Technology

(Text of Paper presented by Mr.D.S.Rajan, Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies (CCCS) at the ‘Symposium on India-China Cultural Dialogue’, organised jointly by the University of Madras and the Fu Dan University, Shanghai, China, at Chennai, India, on 7 August, 2007.)

“Both China and India hold the view that they are not rivals or competitors but are partners for mutual benefit. The two nations agree that there is enough space for them to grow together, achieve a higher scale of development, and play their respective roles in the region and beyond, while remaining sensitive to each other’s concerns and aspirations.”

– China-India Joint Declaration issued following President Hu Jintao’s visit to India, November 20-21, 2006.

What has been said above, aptly, sums up the current conditions in Beijing-New Delhi ties; the stated common wish of the two nations is to ‘upgrade their relations to a qualitatively new level and further substantiate and reinforce their Strategic and Cooperative Partnership’. Coming to China-India Science and Technology (S&T) cooperation, it figures as one of the aspects of the Declaration’s ten-point strategy for bilateral relations. This justifies the need for us to discuss the subject not in isolation, but against the emerging overall scenario.

Prior to analysing the prospects of Sino-Indian S&T cooperation, it may be worthwhile to examine the current status of the policies and actions of each side relating to the subject.

China’s S&T Policy

Let us take the case of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) first. Its “National Medium and Long-term Programme for Scientific and Technological Development (2006-2020)”, popularly known as the 15-Year Plan for Science and Technology, announced in January 2006, aims at making the country a pre-eminent power in the field, by expanding its capacity to create “indigenous innovation”. It seems to be a result of China’s realisation at this stage that its already gained status as the world-manufacturing hub, is not enough to ultimately make the country a true global economic and technological power, unless the same is supplemented by capabilities for innovation. The Plan envisages a policy framework conducive to innovation, providing for measures like preferential taxation, setting up of high-technology industry zones and assimilation of foreign technology.

The 15-Year Plan visualises more than US$ 100 billion annual investment in the S&T field and stipulates a rise in the R&D investment, from the current 1.4% of the GDP to 2% by 2010 and 2.5% by 2020. Its other features include effecting a hike in State financing for higher education (US$ 10.4 billion in 2003) and achieving a substantial increase in the number of researchers (926, 000 researchers in 2004, 77% more than the figure for 1995). The Plan has another important goal – reducing the level of country’s dependence on foreign technology to less than 30% of total imports by 2020. In essence, the Plan heralds a new path for China in S&T field. Look at what Premier Wen Jiabao has said – “Core technology cannot be bought. Only by strong capacity of scientific and technological innovation and by obtaining its own Intellectual Property (IP) rights, China can promote its international competitiveness”.

The Five-Year S&T program (2006-2010), released subsequently in December 2006, has been another document revealing the fast changing China’s S&T policy. It focussed on the need to open the S&T projects, excepting those concerning national security, for overseas partners. Areas for international cooperation identified by it (as well as the Declaration mentioned above), included – space based technologies, nano sciences, biotechnology, clean energy development, environmental protection and HIV/AIDS treatment. It appears that China’s drive towards innovation has already started producing some results. Some of the country’s enterprises, with the support of the government, have begun formulating innovation strategies to become more globally competitive. For example, the strategy of the PRC’s Lenovo Corporation leading to its acquisition of the IBM’s Personal Computer Division, making it the world’s largest PC maker.

Such encouraging signals notwithstanding, it looks inevitable that China may face tough challenges in the matter of implementing the 15-year Plan and the Five-Year Programme. In the main, it has to tackle issues relating to protection of intellectual property (IP), undeveloped financial markets and environmental degradation. It also needs to address the problem of ageing population, affecting in long term the much-needed availability of scientists and engineers. Last, but not least, Beijing may have to address the question whether or not innovation and a closed political system can go together. Beijing appears to be serious in tackling the challenges, particularly on the issue of IP. A full picture is however yet to emerge.

India’s S&T Policy

Let us take next, India’s S&T policy. The one announced in 2003, calls for revitalising S&T governance and investment, strengthening of S&T infrastructure in academic institutions, evolving new funding mechanisms for basic research, developing human resources, linking industry and scientific R&D and promoting international S&T cooperation. The question as to what will be the further directions was addressed in the speech of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the 94th Indian Science Congress held in December 2006. His announcement that the government is determined to boost the annual expenditure on S&T from the current level of less than 1% of the GDP to 2% in next 5 years, has been noteworthy, particularly in the context of the decline in this regard, witnessed in 2000- 2005. As indicators of fresh initiatives, the Prime Minister stressed on the need to launch a second green revolution for India providing for application of S&T to forest conservation and management as well as sustainable environmental protection, searching for alternative sources of energy supply like bio-fuel, solar energy, nuclear etc, making use of S&T to find links between green house gas emissions and climate change and finally, tapping S&T talent of the global Indian diaspora.

India too may face challenges in implementation of its S&T policy. They, as identified by Manmohan Singh, pertained to improvement of the productivity of investment already made and arrest of decline in enrollment in schools and colleges in basic sciences and the falling research standards in universities, even in advanced research institutes. A basic issue for India however remains – India’s innovative work in the field of S&T still remains low. Another negative aspect relates to the disconnect between India’s science infrastructure and markets, largely due to the situation under which the policy environment denies incentives for the private sector to invest in innovation.

To meet the challenges and with an eye on gaining S&T innovation and global competitiveness for the country’s industry, the Indian Government is setting up new institutions and strengthening the old ones. The National Knowledge Commission, the Science Advisory council to the Prime Minister and the Technology Information Forecasting Assessment Council (TIFAC), an autonomous organisation under the Department of S&T, are playing an useful role in this regard. TIFAC’s recent document on “Technology Vision 2020 for India” has already set an important agenda for the country’s scientific establishment. Also, in the current era of globalisation, the responsibility allotted to TIFAC is striking – to watch global technological trends and finalise policy options for India.

China-India Comparison

The foregoing shows that both China and India are intensifying efforts to gradually become S&T powers to suit to their interests of development and globalisation. At the same time, the contrast between the S&T plans and actions of the two countries is apparent. Firstly, India’s Vision 2020 Plan appears no match to the 15- Year plan of China, which targets a US$ 100 billion annual investment in S&T. China’s R&D expenditure is currently 1.4% of the GDP, whereas for India, the figure is 0.8%. What is of interest is that both want to increase this expenditure to 2 % of the GDP (in next 5 years in the case of India and next three years in the case of China. The PRC further sets a target of 2.5% increase by 2020). In terms of purchasing power parity, as per OECD estimate, China’s R&D expenditure in 2006 may have surpassed that of Japan for the first time, placing it second in the world behind the USA. The third distinguishing point relates to China’s strategy to reduce the level of dependence on technology imports from abroad, with no similar emphasis visible on the part of India. As next point, on the key issue of IP, the nature of challenge to China and India varies. The issue is not a major obstacle to India’s S&T plan while for China it remains a challenge.

China-India S&T Cooperation

The Sino-Indian agreement in the Declaration to “optimally utilise the present and potential complementarities”, is expected to remain the basis for S&T cooperation. This implies the intention of the two sides to achieve a synergy between the respective strengths – India’s software and China’s hardware. Already the intentions are slowly becoming a reality. Beijing and New Delhi have started taking steps to reverse the unfavourable trends prevailed in 1988-2004 period in the field of S&T cooperation. The MOU signed between the two sides on September 7, 2006, at the time of the visit to China by the Indian S&T Minister Mr Kapil Sibal, is a case in point. Areas of cooperation identified on the occasion included agriculture, biotechnology, chemicals, health, electronics and advanced materials. Also significant is the recent formation of a China-India Steering Committee on S&T cooperation, tasked with addressing strategic issues concerning the bilateral S&T cooperation. Its first meeting coincided with Sibal’s visit.

Future Prospects

What are the future prospects of China-India S&T cooperation? The answer is that we cannot rule out an interplay between cooperation and competition in the process depending on the circumstances. Cooperation may altogether not suffer for quite some time, given the still non-antagonistic nature of the driving forces for the S&T strategies of the two nations – India mostly eying domestic consumption and China concentrating on exports. Though a number of areas now stand identified for China-India S&T cooperation, critical from the point of view of mutual benefit to each nation, would include clean energy, space and bio-technology.

China has for the first time offered civil nuclear energy cooperation with India, when President Hu Jintao visited New Delhi in end 2006.Definitely, India can benefit from this, as the PRC is comparatively advanced in the development of nuclear power technology. Over the next fifteen years, Beijing plans to set up 30 new power plants in China, quadrupling the level of nuclear power generation. China may also find nuclear energy cooperation with India advantageous to it, on the premise that the resultant augmentation of India’s nuclear power, may somewhat reduce the competition for import of fossil fuels. But, when the Chinese offer to India could become a reality, remains a question. In this regard, the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, which is now in last stages of completion, may cast a shadow on the PRC’s future position. China, though supports India’s right to develop nuclear energy, provided the objectives of non-proliferation are maintained and strengthened, views the Indo-US nuclear agreement strategically, connecting that with Washington’s global strategy. ‘The US draws India against China’, the PRC’s State-controlled media complain. Any progress in China-India civil nuclear cooperation may therefore be dependent on Beijing’s final evaluation of the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Beijing may also have to take note of the sensitivities of Pakistan, receiver of Chinese aid for nuclear plants, before starting civil nuclear cooperation with India.

Cooperation in Biotechnology and space technology would also benefit both China and India. Especially in the case of space, the two nations can learn from each other in matters like execution of manned space programmes and monitoring of weather through satellites. Beijing’s 15-Year Plan has prominently identified this field for international cooperation. However, strategic factors may cloud China-India Space cooperation. The PRC seems to nurture doubts about military tasks under India’s space programme. Some of its media have commented upon India’s CARTOSAT programme as aimed at monitoring Chinese military movements. India, on its part, along with other nations, doubts the PRC’s motives behind its Anti-Satellite Weapon Test (ASAT) held in January this year. New Delhi’s space security concerns came out clearly when an Indian Defence Research official stressed the need for New Delhi to take necessary steps including through the anti-ballistic missiles, to counter Chinese ASAT capabilities.


In the ultimate analysis, Sino-Indian relations as a whole, is steadily improving, based on what looks like a consensus between the two nations, to approach bilateral ties, looking beyond the contentious issues like the boundary problem. Economic and trade relations are on the upswing and a foundation seems to have been laid for future bilateral S&T cooperation. There is need however to look at China-India relations from the point of view of long term stability both in bilateral and regional sense, which undeniably can come only if the two sides achieve success in addressing a host of strategic issues dividing them. No doubt, both China and India have a heavy responsibility in this regard.

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