Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to India should help to move relations between Asia's two rising powers beyond the frozen matrices of a departed past. Well-meaning commentators focus on their ancient civilisational friendship as a template for the future. While that friendship undoubtedly is important, it must contend today with the reality of China and India as modern powers in a globalised world in which history does not owe nations a living.
Then there is the apparently timeless shadow cast on their ties by what was but a brief border war in 1962. Prospects of bilateral relations are extrapolated from culture and conflict, as if Chinese and Indians can know only one or the other, and as if economics can play no part in creating new avenues of understanding and cooperation. These are limiting perspectives.
In that context, Mr Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have set an ambitious agenda for the future by highlighting the catalytic role that could be played by convergent development strategies in placing the two countries on desired trajectories of growth. Mr Xi's symbolically significant visit to Gujarat, Mr Modi's home state which in many ways is a showcase of India's economic potential, underscores that connection.
China has offered India its infrastructural development expertise, which would be a boon for an Indian railway network crying out for modernisation. Indian ports, roads and a project to link rivers stand to benefit as well from Chinese investment interest. The investment deals signed during the trip would help to narrow the US$31 billion (S$39.1 billion) trade deficit, a significant figure given the annual two-way commerce of more than US$65 billion.
China, too, could learn from India. Areas include improving software development and encouraging private enterprises to become world actors. India's ability to use English as a tool in business negotiations would appeal to China as it establishes itself as a global player. The vitality of Indian civil society, which creates the impression of chaos but actually embodies the self-confidence of a nation constantly seeking to build consensus from below, could offer China insights into how a fellow Asian country has transformed diversity into working unity. China could look to India because, unlike countries that want China to modernise on their political terms, India has no such agenda.
On the international front, India's growing closeness to Japan and its partnership with the United States should not impede Sino-Indian economic cooperation. International relations do not have to be a zero-sum game, certainly not for two Asian powers with such deep stakes in each other's success.