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Selling Yunnan to South Asia

A report on the China-South Asian Countries Think Tank Forum meet held in Kunming – June 6 and 7, 2013

China’s keen desire to broaden its relationship with South Asian countries, with special focus on building linkages with Yunnan Province, was manifest at the first-ever China-South Asian Countries Think Tank Forum (CSA Forum) hosted jointly by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Yunnan Provincial Government at Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province on June 6 and 7, 2013.

Institute for Chinese Studies, New Delhi and Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad were South Asian co-hosts of the conference.

Three premier Chinese think tanks – the National Institute of Asia Pacific and Global Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences – and the Yunnan Provincial Foreign Culture Exchange Association provided support in conducting the Forum meet.

About 40 resource representatives from South Asian countries (including Afghanistan) and Myanmar and about 80 representatives of Chinese think tanks from various provinces and academic institutions participated in the two-day deliberations.

On the evening of June 5, participants of the Forum were invited to attend a huge open air cultural event showcasing a mix of Chinese opera, ethnic and pop dances and music, organised on the eve of the first ever China-South Asia Expo starting on June 6. Significantly, a Bollywood dance with song crooned by a Chinese pop star was uproariously received by the audience.

The next morning, the Forum delegates were invited to attend the inaugural function of the China-South Asia Expo (a morphed form of South Asian Countries Trade Fair held in earlier years). At the inaugural function, among the representatives from South Asia, India was a conspicuous absentee.

One of our hosts proudly pointed out the Expo venue was completed in record five months; he added two metro net works under construction in Kunming would be completed by 2015 linking the existing metro.

CSA Forum was inaugurated in the afternoon of June 6 at the International Conference Hall in picturesque lakeside resort of Dianchi Garden Hotel and Spa. Veteran diplomats Mr Eric Gonsalves and Mr Kishan Rana, Major General Dipankar Banerjee (retd), and Mrs Alka Acharya were some of the prominent Indian representatives.

Pakistan was represented by Mr Fazal-ur-Rahman, Director, Strategic Studies Institute Ltd Islamabad (not to be confused with the more reputed Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad) and Mr Khalid Rahman, Director General, Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad. Major General Sajjadul Haque, Director General, Bangladesh Institute of International & Strategic Studies, Mr Nihal Rodrigo, former foreign secretary of Sri Lanka, and Dr Kelegama, Executive Director, Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka, were some of the other prominent South Asian participants. Nepal had representatives from the international relations cell of United Communist Party (Maoist) and the Nepal Congress.

After a brief inaugural function addressed by Chinese government and academic dignitaries, the Forum deliberations were carried out in three simultaneous meetings to discuss Regional Economic Cooperation, Regional Connectivity and People to People Contact.

In the evening Shanti Niketan and Vishwa Bharati University made a audio-visual presentation for the delegates on Ravindranath Tagore’s universal message of love and peace, interspersed with melodious Ravindra Sangeet. Professor Tan Chung gave a moving introduction to the programme on Tagore and his contribution for amity and peace.

At the session on Regional Connectivity, senior representatives from India spoke. Mr Gonsalves stressed the need to work on common interests as relationship building was a work in progress. Major General Dipankar Banerjee touched upon problems of visa issue which was affecting connectivity. Col Hariharan (Retd) made a presentation on strengthening China-India convergences which was well received. Commodore RS Vasan (Retd) from Center for Asia Studies, speaking at the same session highlighted the power play in the Indian Ocean and identified areas in which India and China can actively cooperate.

The Chinese representatives made multifaceted and well researched presentations. They focused on positive aspects on which relationship could be built. They stressed the need for China-South Asia networking to minimise the impact of the global economic downturn as well as for sharing technological advancements in China and India.

There was an open house to draw up a China-South Asia Forum Charter. After a lot of debate, a declaration rather than a memorandum was drawn up to take the Forum forward. The Chinese hosts wanted the Forum to meet next year to add form and content to the ideas discussed at the forum. Delegates agreed to the suggestion.

Overall, the Forum meet was very well organised with excellent time management and logistics. The credit goes to Professor Ren Jia, chairman of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences who was ably assisted by Professor Guo Suiyan. A surfeit of enthusiastic student volunteers from the university, who tried out their English skills with the delegates, went out of their way to help the delegates.The delegates will remember the warm hospitality and courtesy of all the staff looking after them.

The Forum meet coincided the China-South Asia Expo (a morphed form of South Asian Countries Trade Fair held in earlier years) at Kunming from June 6 to 10, 2013. Simultaneously, the 21st China Kunming Import and Export Fair was also held. According to a Xinhua report, business volume transacted at the two five-day fairs “proposed to strengthen cooperation and maintain economic growth amid the lack lustre economic rebound” totalled $17.47 billion, “up 116.5 percent over last year.”

With the Yunnan – Burma road to the Indian Ocean coast and pipeline links poised to be completed this year, clearly the objective of the whole exercise was not only to show case Kunming which has become a modern city but also to market Yunnan as the gateway for business with China for South Asians. It is a timely move that can also take advantage of the BCIM infrastructure link which is taking shape.

Obviously, the Chinese objective in organizing the CSA Forum was to understand the perceptions of South Asian countries to provide for smoother interaction with them and strengthen the growing links with China.

[The writer, Col R Hariharan retd. attend the China-South Asia Forum meet for Think Tanks at Kunming on invitation as representative of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mai: colhari@yahoo.com]

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