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China and India – why the two largest Nations on Earth need to have a civilisational dialogue

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Vijaya Dar
Vijaya Dar
Born in Kashmir. Indic by culture. Occasional writer, avid reader. Love serious cinema, but not TV. Eternal student.

Of late there have been many opinions on India-China relations. There seems to be growing awareness in both countries that they have much more in common than what their political leaders, before Modi and Xi, were trying to sell to them. In the paragraphs below I have tried to put the India-China stories in their historical perspective, concluding that the two largest and continuous civilizations on this planet have no other option but to look at each other through a broad cultural telescope instead of a military microscope. With the near certainty of PM Modi getting elected for another term in 2019, it becomes even more imperative that peaceful and cooperative India-China relations are further strengthened to bring not only cultural but also economic wealth to the two nations.

The Stories of India & China

If there is one person who has correctly understood the dynamics of the two largest nations on this planet it has to be Michael Wood whose two documentaries “The Story of India” (2007) and “The Story of China” (2016) are a visual lesson in the history of two of the oldest continuous civilisations on earth. Made for BBC, both the documentaries consist of six episodes each – with each episode of almost one hour’s duration. Michael Wood takes the viewer on a visual journey from the earliest times of the two great civilizations culminating in the present. Wood complements his historian’s curiosity with the acumen of a professional filmmaker and a compelling storyteller. In short, what David Attenborough is to Nature, Michael Wood is to History.

While watching “The Story of China” I realized how close the two Asian countries are and how much influence they have wielded on each other. Both China and India are essentially agrarian societies that developed very similar philosophies about the human condition and the relationship between man and his environment. Both the civilizations believed in an abstract divinity that was not descended from a prophet or a book. Although China was deeply influenced by Buddhist thought and became the largest Buddhist nation on earth, it acknowledged its debt to India for having given birth to Siddhartha Gautama. Chinese pilgrims regularly crossed the formidable Himalayan barriers to study Buddhism in India and to take back with them valuable texts of the Buddhist canon. In fact, it is in China and Sri Lanka that most of the Buddhist texts have been preserved, after the decline of Buddhism in India. Commercial trade between India and China along the various arteries of the Silk Road goes back many thousand years. Long before the British brought tea to India, Ladakh and the Kashmir valley were getting their supplies from Chinese traders in Yarkand and Kashgar, ancient cities in today’s Xinjiang province.

Both China and India have suffered long periods of colonial rule while some of the colonists got absorbed in the conquered lands. The Mongols and the Manchus are to China what the Kushans and the Mughals are to India. The Europeans, from the time Vasco Da Gama discovered the sea route around the tip of Southern Africa, came in waves and ended up colonizing both India and China. Christianity followed in the wake of the traders and the conquerors, while Islam had already come by land and established itself through military conquest. Yet, both these proselytizing religions were unable to gather more than just a foothold and failed in converting the majority of the inhabitants as they had done in other parts of the world. Although Mao temporarily managed to create a Godless state, yet Communism or Maoism has not been able to wipe out the ancient Confucianism or Buddhism from the minds of the Chinese people. Today, there are signs of a revival of religious practices within China, even though the state has tried to outlaw certain Islamic practices in Xinjiang and the rest of China. Out of a total population of about 1.30 Billion, only about 3% are followers of Christianity and Islam together. Buddhism is still practiced by about 16% while the majority of the remaining 81% are either follower of the ancient faiths of Confucianism, Taoism, Daoism, or just atheists.

In India, both Christianity and Islam failed largely to stamp their imprints on the vast majority of the poor and socially exploited Hindus, not because they didn’t try all kinds of blandishments and coercive methods, but because both of them failed to understand the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of the Bharatiya traditions. Ramchandra Gandhi writes in “I Am Thou – Meditations on the Truth of India” that Islam’s hegemony failed in achieving its goal of a substantial conversion of the Hindus to its faith. According to him it “is an unprecedented Islamic failure, the culmination of which is the partition of India and the seeking of a piece of land, Pakistan, by Muslim separatists not in battle but from a third party, the British, in petitionary negotiations, a final embarrassment.”

Origins of India-China Rivalry

Why then is there so much hostility between the two nations? Why did we end up defending against a Chinese military aggression in 1962 just a few years after the euphoria of Panchsheel and Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai? I believe that a large share of the blame rests with our leadership and us. Nehru, despite all his public bonhomie with the Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai, was deeply suspicious of China’s motives in Asia. He privately advised the first Indian cultural delegation to China in 1952, headed by his sister Mrs. Pandit, to “never forget that the basic challenge in South-east Asia is between India and China. That challenge runs along the spine of Asia. Therefore, in your talks with the Chinese, keep it in mind. Never let the Chinese patronize you.”

The Chinese brought up on a diet of Confucianism and Lao-Tze’s Taoism, have never really known democracy. Frank Moraes, who was part of the 1952 delegation, writes in his immensely perceptive book “Witness to An Era” that the Chinese have “never dealt with other people as equals”** and there has always been a certain amount of condescension in their attitude towards foreigners. The millennial imperial imprint on China’s consciousness runs deep and Mao’s Communism continued to be coloured by this feeling of Chinese racial superiority. Confucius taught that the ideal society is patriarchal; the people the subjects of the head who has the mandate of Heaven to rule over them. The Emperor was seen as a benevolent despot who was like a father to his people. Mao smoothly assumed this role, though in fatigues instead of purple silks. Mao’s communism was as imperialist as the rule of the Manchus or the Songs had been, though without the accompanying titles.

Despite their annexation of Tibet and Eastern Turkistan (Xinjiang) the Chinese are not expansionists by nature. China has suffered many invasions and its Northern and Western flanks have continuously been under siege by one marauding horde or another. An expansionist people do not build the kind of walls that the Chinese have. Walls are made to protect and keep safe what is within and not to foray outside on expansionist raids. The Opium Wars of 1839 to 1860 resulting in China’s demoralising defeat by the British followed by a humiliating loss to Japan in 1894-95 further made the Chinese more insular and inward-looking.

It is not my argument that China had walled itself and broken all contacts with the outside world. Ming China had sent seven naval expeditions (1405-1433) under the command of Admiral Zheng He who sailed along the Indian Ocean trade routes to Arabia and East Africa. However, in 1433 the government suddenly called them off, and it was reported that the Emperor ordered all the ships to be destroyed. It is not as if Zheng He had brought any disgrace to the Emperor or the nation. Historians puzzled by this action of the Emperor have advanced many theories, but the one I believe is that the naval expeditions were not sent to conquer or even trade, but just to display to the world the might and the cultural superiority of the Chinese people. China was in the envious position of not wanting anything from anywhere. Instead the world was knocking at its doors for its silks, tea, porcelain, paper, technology, and everything that a civilized society wanted to have. Moreover, the Western and Northern flanks of China were again under threat from the barbarians and all the resources were needed to defend the Empire against them.

Chinese Nationalism is not Expansionism

The Chinese are one of the most rooted of people. Their cities and places are rarely named after famous people or divinities. These names instead invoke something natural like mountains, waters, trees, or even animals. Each place or location is interwoven with its essence and one can immediately get the sense of a place from its name. It is something like the old American names that were also centered on the landscape of the place. This is what an Australian scholar at Harvard, Ross Terrill, wrote when he visited China in the summer of 1971:

“In China’s heartland, the cliché of China as ‘The Middle Kingdom’ (which is the literal translation of the Chinese word for ‘China’) does not seem absurd. Here are a superior people, you reflect, but whose sense of their superiority is rooted in contentment with their own mountains and rivers. Not an active sense of superiority, which pants to convert the world to its excellence. A passive sense of superiority, which basks, inward-turned, within its own possessed excellence.”

People may well ask how all the Chinatowns that pepper almost every city and country around the world have come about? It is the same about the Indians whom one can meet everywhere these days. None of them went about to conquer or with any high missionary zeal, but with practice, livelihood goals in mind. There are Chinese all over South-east Asia, but they did not follow in the wake of an invading army to settle the conquered lands. Tibet’s story is slightly different. It was at the center of the Great Game that Britain and Russia were playing in Asia in which the Potala Palace became an unwitting chess piece. China’s move in Tibet was to thwart this threat between the two major powers that were planning to box it in.

According to Terrill China’s “fundamental contentment springs from cultural security.” The Chinese have the patience of ages and it is their nature to take a long view of things. Lenin may have inspired the Chinese revolution, but Mao broke away from the Russian model, as it was unsuited for how he viewed his own country. The Long March was a revolution based on self-reliance, and Mao was the first to admit that no country could make another nation’s revolution for it. This self-reliance was achieved at a very heavy cost. None of the Allied nations, not even Russia, came to stand by China when it was attacked by Japan in the 1930s. The Chinese Communist party was left alone to fight the Japanese war machine, and it had no other choice but to depend upon the resources of the peasants and people of China. Mao is said to have called the soldiers of the Red Army “fish” that was totally dependent upon the “water” represented by the peasants of China. This self-reliance makes Chinese wary of groups and blocs. It was one of the reasons why the Russian communists and their Chinese comrades fell apart. The Russians are committed bloc-people and they look at political formations from an aggressive point-of-view. The Chinese, on the other hand, have no superpower ambitions because their global viewpoint is centered on the Middle Kingdom. Maoism, as we understand it in India, is not a Chinese export, but a completely indigenous phenomenon trying to identify itself with the Communist icon. Mao himself never supported the absurdity that Indian Maoism represents. You will never hear the word Maoism spoken when the Chinese refer to foreign friends of China or foreign communists.

Mao used to say: “Learn to play the piano,” because in playing this instrument one has to use all the ten fingers, but not all of them at the same time. His advice was that if one wanted to play the entire tonal range one would have to find the right finger for the right key. Pakistan today is one of the fingers that China is using to get access to a warm water port as also to keep India off-balance. But that does not mean that China will not use one of the other nine fingers to put pressure on Pakistan to keep it to the straight path.

The Chinese have never committed themselves to Communist rebellions in other countries nor have they fought on behalf of “friendly countries.” The 1971 war between India and Pakistan saw no Chinese intervention although there was a lot of sabre rattling. Similarly Beijing did not support the communist rebels in Sri Lanka and allowed them to lose. Terrill sums up: “The Chinese are actually among the Realists of history, not the Zealots or the Romantics.” They are not “Communists with the left hand and Bismarckians with the right.”

Nehru Was Wrong in His Suspicion of China

Nehru’s advice to his delegation in 1952 was wrong on many counts. First, China and India were not necessarily in a race for regional control, especially when the Himalayan spine divided the two nations. Second, the Chinese have always considered themselves as superior people and their Confucianism could not but be patronising towards any visiting delegates. Third, the Chinese have historically not been expansionists and Nehru did not fully understand China’s stand on Tibet. In any case, he spoiled his relations with China by dithering and vacillating about the Dalai Lama’s status and even advised him to cooperate with Beijing. In 1956 China had expressed a willingness to accept the McMahon Line as a permanent border between the two countries. In fact, the Chinese did recognize the Burmese section of this line in 1960 when they signed a treaty of friendship and non-aggression with Burma. All that China wanted was for India to recognize its control on Aksai Chin, a desolate waste “where not a blade of grass grows.” With these words, Nehru had tried to persuade the Parliament to accept the Chinese proposal, but by then he had already become enveloped in his own myth of the Indo-Chinese bonhomie, and he found it difficult to find support for a hard bargain that his supposedly best friends were driving. In any case, China already had control of this area after the 1948 ceasefire agreement with Pakistan that divided Kashmir and left more than half of the princely state in Pakistan’s control.

Nehru’s death in 1964 followed quickly by Shastri’s in 1966 catapulted an inexperienced Indira Gandhi into the PM’s seat. Shastri had just been cajoled by the Russian PM Kosygin to sign the Tashkent agreement with Ayub Khan. The war with India in 1965 had gone very poorly for Ayub and he had no bargaining chips against the loss of Haji Pir and Tithwal to the Indian forces. However, in Tashkent, the Russians exerted so much pressure on Shastri that he returned these two strategic areas in exchange for virtually nothing. This was perhaps too much for his frail heart and he never woke up the morning after the agreement.

Pakistan once again pushed India into a situation where war became inevitable. It was Pakistan Army’s action in East Pakistan that resulted in millions of Bengalis crossing the border and seeking asylum in India from the marauding soldiers of Yahya and Tikka Khan. With war appearing unavoidable, Indira Gandhi, in August 1971, signed a 20-years treaty of peace, friendship, and cooperation with the Soviet Union. This was supposed to counter the open belligerence and hostility towards India of Nixon and Kissinger. In the event, the Americans did not come to the rescue of the beleaguered Pakistanis and the country ended up suffering another humiliating defeat with 90000 of its troops taken by the Indians as POWs. An independent Bangladesh emerged out of this conflict and Pakistan lost a half of its territory. Paying lip service to Pakistan’s cause China kept up a verbal assault on India but beyond that, there was no real assistance provided to its ally.

Narendra Modi & The Future of India-China Relations

Both China and India have moved a long way away from their studied positions in the aftermath of the 1971 war. Mao passed on and the Chinese began to embrace capitalism openly and with a vengeance. India too has come out of the self-imposed imprisonment of Nehruvian socialism; and after the first NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has not looked back wistfully upon the days of “license, permit, Raj.” Both the countries today are largely invested in each other’s economy and a confrontationist attitude is detrimental to the welfare of both. The two largest countries in the world have so much in common that it defies logic to see them at loggerheads. Both are not expansionists by nature and do not covet each other’s territory. To call China our greatest enemy is a fallacy that keeps both off-balance. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc has eased the pressure on China’s Western flank. Its economic might is allowing it to flex its muscles and the present Chinese are not loath to send a fleet similar to Zheng He’s to shock and awe the countries in the South-east, Arabia, and Africa. To see a military threat in these maneuvers is to display complete ignorance about China’s history.

So how should Prime Minister Modi approach the Chinese dragon? When he hosted the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, instead of in New Delhi, Modi made the first departure from the traditional approach followed by his predecessors. It was a refreshing change to see the heads of two of the largest nations, comprising a third of the world’s population, sitting on a parapet wall, looking admirably at ease with each other. It was a statement of confidence that the highest wall could be negotiated if there were goodwill and respect for each other’s position. You didn’t have to blast holes into it for one to hear the other. Modi possesses this ability to come across as an honest, hard-working leader who means what he says, and by now the world has seen him at work for four years.

For India and China to move ahead the two countries need to have a civilizational dialogue and not a militarist one. Apart from business exchanges, we have practically no cultural exchanges with China. The cultural richness of the two nations are vast pools of thousands of years of development in all aspects of life; be it philosophy, literature, political science, music, the fine arts, cuisine, ethics, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, engineering etc. etc. The commonality of the two nations is best reflected in American universities where the majority of international students are of Indian and Chinese extraction. It is a shame that the interconnecting streams between the two pools have been allowed to dry and wither. Confrontation on OBOR and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor should not become the stumbling blocks in the renewal of these connecting streams. PM Modi has taken the lead in keeping these issues on the back burner and to press for an active civilizational exchange with China. There is simply too much in common between the two civilizations to make prolonged confrontation self-defeating and eventually mutually destructive. Between 2019 and 2024 World politics will undergo a dramatic metamorphosis if India led by PM Modi and China led by President Xi Jinping put the differences behind them and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity to one-third of the population of this planet.


Ramchandra Gandhi: “I am Thou” Page 27, from the essay “For a Piece of Land.

Frank Moraes: “Witness to an Era” Pages 220-221, from the chapter: “China and Pakistan”

Ross Terrill: “800,000,000, The Real China” (Little Brown & Co. 1972)


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Vijaya Dar
Vijaya Dar
Born in Kashmir. Indic by culture. Occasional writer, avid reader. Love serious cinema, but not TV. Eternal student.
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