China and India set the pace in South–South cooperation
Renewed political commitment means India and China could set the pace for bilateral South–South collaboration, say Purnima Rupal and Dinesh Abrol.
Growing strategic science and technology cooperation between China and India promises a new outlook for the South. China and India are two of the fastest growing economies in the world; they face similar opportunities and challenges, and could maximise benefits by sharing research and development (R&D). But until recently the scale and scope of their bilateral science and technology (S&T) relations was narrow.
Today, thanks to political leadership that fosters collaboration between the two countries, their science and technology communities are working jointly for mutual benefit and on topics that are highly relevant to global problems.
Bilateral science and technology contacts are flourishing. Research cooperation is blossoming even where the two countries were unwilling to share knowledge in the past. They are successfully implementing joint research projects in atmospheric, earth and space sciences. Previously, this was unthinkable for both sides.
A cautious start
Until the early years of this decade, China and India were cautious about bilateral cooperation. They saw themselves as competitors, and their border conflict prevented them from vigorously pursuing scientific cooperation. Some collaboration occurred, but mainly through multilateral channels with several other developed and developing countries.
In December 1988 the two countries formally agreed to cooperate in S&T, and researchers expected their bilateral contacts to take off. But the scope and scale of research cooperation remained low, because the policy of caution continued.
Between 1994 and 1999, collaborative work remained limited, concentrating on physics and clinical medicine (62 per cent and 14 per cent of joint publications respectively). And published papers from bilateral research projects averaged an impact factor of just 1.45, compared with 2.4 for multilateral research papers.
But when Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji visited India in 2002, bilateral relations were revived. The countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on S&T, space cooperation and hydrological data sharing. For example, China agreed to share hydrological information about the Bramhaputra (Yalu Zangbu) river in the flood season.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Chinese National Space Administration also signed a MOU on cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space.
In 2006, China’s president, Hu Jintao, visited India and developed a ‘ten pronged strategy’ that included boosting cooperation. Both sides agreed to launch joint research projects into earthquake engineering, climate change and weather forecasting, and nanotechnology and biotechnology (to focus on bio-nano research).
When Kapil Sibal, India’s science and technology minister, signed an MOU in Beijing in 2006, he said the strategic relationship between the two countries would have its foundations in the hardware of China and the software of India, and would be based on high technology and research for the pubic good.
China and India have realised that they have complementary science and technology strengths. For example, in genomics research, there are plans to use India’s excellent software and human resources to analyse the large amount of experimental data being generated from high-throughput Chinese labs. The Indian Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology and the Beijing Genomics Institute have already entered an MOU for scientific collaboration in genomics and genome informatics.
Tackling global problems
New collaborations are going beyond the interests of the two countries, and generating science that is relevant across the globe. For example, China has invited the Indian scientific community to propose collaborative research into the proteome of the human liver.
For almost two years, India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the National Natural Science Foundation of China have worked together investigating changing environments, ocean variability, land ecosystems, land-ocean interactions, land-atmosphere interactions, ocean-atmosphere interactions and coupled modelling.
Joint research is closely related to the Monsoon Asia Integrated Regional Study (MAIRS) — a new international global change programme of the Earth System Science Partnership. MAIRS stresses the need for joint investigations into the global change and monsoon-driven processes that affect countries of the Asia-Pacific region.
Over to the scientists
Clearly, the ball is in the scientists’ court. The politicians have given them well-identified collaborative directions. The researchers can now set the pace for South–South scientific cooperation on the problems of global change, renewable energy and health. Their joint research projects could make a constructive contribution to policymaking on global issues, helping resolve conflicting views amicably — by sharing knowledge.
Dinesh Abrol researches India’s science and technology policy at National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi. Purnima Rupal manages bilateral and multilateral cooperative programmes for India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.
This article is part of a Spotlight on The promise of South–South cooperation.