As large economies expand further, powerful rivalry may emerge and lead to trade disputes or conflicts. While the United States and Europe now seem to be going down this traditional route, China and India are commendably taking a different, more positive ‘Asian way.’
TWO Asian giants warmed to each other six days ago, when India and China signed a historic pact and other documents for closer cooperation on Monday.
The joint Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation, and nine affiliated documents, climaxed the visit by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Beijing. Enhanced ties would come on various fronts, from ocean science and technology to the export of Indian mangoes to China.
For two countries that had briefly gone to war in meaner times, to have any such declaration at all was momentous. And for the size, history, culture and regional impact of both India and China, the comprehensiveness of the agreements made it all the more significant.
Vajpayee had led a delegation comprising policymakers and entrepreneurs, some of whom were already operating factories in China. The various areas now identified for enhanced cooperation include culture, finance, economics, law and science.
Not that these two great nations, as next-door neighbours, had not had historic exchanges before. It was the Indian monk Bodhidharma, for example, who 15 centuries ago trekked to China to revive Buddhism and develop kungfu there.
But in modern times, India and China occasionally became embroiled in bitter border disputes. More lately, however, these differences were eclipsed by China’s need to focus on economic growth and social change, while India’s concerns shifted to its own region of South Asia, notably Pakistan and Kashmir.
Tectonic changes in China-India relations were cemented in the Asian continent as economics overruled politics around the world. China rapidly industrialised, and India surged ahead in information technology.
These developments produced gaps in their bilateral trade relationship that needed to be plugged to mutual advantage. Trade since February this year has soared on both sides, with India in particular enjoying greater earnings (US$1.33bil) and a higher growth rate (101%).
All the signs point to closer cooperation in various fields, with sound reasons for it. Even niggling differences over their shared border would be shelved with joint observance of existing agreements, while efforts to resolve them would be based on equivalence and reciprocity.
Although conflict is not alien to Asia, Asian cultures seem more inclined to peaceable relations. A notable exception, Imperial Japan, arose from attempts to copy the British Empire abroad after the Japanese elite had emulated the British ruling class at home.
Asia as a whole was not only the cradle of civilisation, but also the source of all the world’s major religions. Asians today have embarked on economic growth and industrial development through hard work, voluntary sacrifice and high savings, not by the traditional Western method of colonial plunder.
Soon after historical periods of war on the European continent, a phase of colonial wars of subjugation and exploitation of the world’s poor occurred. Western power brokers then marked the 20th century by producing two world wars.
But no sooner had world peace broken out in 1945 than the testosterone-charged politics of Western power created the Cold War. Superior technology was consistently placed at the service of threats, conquest and destruction.
But even as the Cold War was dissipating a decade ago, Western great power conflict seemed to be reinventing itself. Intercontinental disputes based on powerful political entities, in turn founded on regional economic blocs, soon appeared.
Political analysts foresaw a new global competition between Europe and the United States. This, some believe, would be based on the inherently conflictual nature of Western-style global capitalism.
Fierce competition for resources and markets has long been a mainstay of war. The scale of this trans-Atlantic conflict, as it develops in the 21st century, is expected to dwarf even the Cold War that had spawned a global arms race, skewed international relations and ruptured the Third World with proxy wars.
The recent US war against Iraq had already uncovered differences between the European and American positions, some of which were traceable to European rights to, and American designs on, Iraqi oil. But no sooner had the dust settled with diplomatic overtures across the Atlantic than another disjuncture broke.
Just hours after the Indian and Chinese Prime Ministers signed their historic agreements in Beijing, US President Bush in Washington attacked Europe’s opposition to US exports of GM (genetically modified) food crops.
European countries are wary of American agricultural produce in which the genes of crops have been manipulated for supposedly faster growth or disease resistance. The long-term effects of consuming these products on human health and the environment are still not fully known, even in the US itself.
The case for GM foods has been compromised by new discoveries of their nasty side-effects in different countries. The industry predictably denies or dismisses such discoveries, anxious that even negative publicity can affect the stock prices of GM companies marketing the tampered seeds.
In June last year, the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences found that genetically modified cotton was damaging the environment, and some insect pests were developing resistance to it. The study was based on laboratory and field tests by four scientific institutions in China over several years.
Then there are some “superweeds” inadvertently created that are resistant to weedkillers, some of which are reportedly found in Malaysia. Among the possible consequences of GM agribusiness are the destruction of organic farming, and the creation of mutant strains when doctored genes merge with those of weeds.
Even more alarming are the side-effects of eating GM food. The industry has long denied, falsely, that GM plant DNA could be transferred to human intestinal bacteria.
In the world’s first study by Britain’s Food Standards Agency last July, this transference was found after just one meal of GM food.
Research scientists found traces of material inserted into GM food in human subjects, potentially lowering human resistance to antibiotics and making diseases deadlier.
Here again, Tony Blair plays a US ally in the global push for GM food. When the British Environment Minister Michael Meacher expressed doubts about the safety of GM food, he was sacked this month.
GM food is controversial because it is risky, involving germline engineering – biotechnologies that make permanent and irreversible changes at the genetic level, with consequences that are still unknown. After GM crops, the industry will seek to push for the sale of GM animals as livestock.
But many consumers in Britain, as elsewhere, reject GM food which the US refuses to distinguish from non-GM farm produce. Protests continue at different levels, with British supermarkets telling the government they will not stock GM foods.
GM lobbyists say higher yields from GM crops will feed the world’s starving. Opponents say world hunger comes not from lack of food but its maldistribution.
The poor starve not because the world does not produce enough, but because they cannot afford to buy food when surplus harvests are destroyed to maintain market prices. African nations told Bush not to speak on their behalf, while hunger-stricken Zambia and Zimbabwe shunned US GM food aid rejected by European consumers.
It is doubtful that GM food corporations would be so charitable as to feed the world’s hungry if there was no profit in it. Precisely because of hyperprofits, GM foods add another layer of differentiation between rich and poor, North and South.
A single US corporation, Monsanto, “owns” more than 80% of GM seeds in 16 countries. And while developed countries lay claim to 97% of the world’s bio patents, 90% of the world’s biological resources are in the Third World.
Bio patenting is a new frontier in modern colonialism. US corporations want to claim rights even to the rice strains grown in India, but not always successfully.
The EU moratorium on American GM food that Bush condemned is more than intercontinental rivalry, despite the vast US lead in the industry. Europeans are concerned about their health and environment, with each nation or region boasting culinary traditions in place of bland fast-food peddling GM material.
Since much of Asia is still of the Third World, even hulking great nations like China and India might succumb to the neo-colonial designs of GM food and patents. That would then affect even the mangoes India wants to sell to China, while altering the “DNA” of Asian trade patterns forever.
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