China and India Through the Ages: Lessons From History

The potential synergy of India and China is often talked about with ambitious terms such as “Chindia” in the light of the idea of the “Asian century”. But it is just as often that we see two nations and two worldviews that keep coming into conflict with each other. Post-colonial phase has not been too favorable for Indo-China relations. Though colonialism, and the warding off of it, broke the spell of a long-standing isolation in a way, it pushed the two countries into more difficult waters.

Broadly, the relations of the two big Asian neighbors can be classified under three types of eras: era of cooperation; era of isolation; and era of conflict. These are not watertight compartments, but have at times followed each other, or even overlapped.

A glance back to the ancient relations between India and China is very insightful. As it turns out, India is the only country in the outside world to which scholars from ancient China went for education and training. The ancient period saw two broad kinds of movements from China to India and vice-versa. While China contributed to India through the material world, India contributed through the spiritual world. As Amartya Sen puts in his book, The Argumentative Indian, “If China was enriching the material world of India two thousand years ago, India was busy, it appears, exporting Buddhism to China.”

While on one hand we have Gautama Siddhartha, an Indian (known as Qutan Xida in China) who became president of the official board of Astronomy in China, on the other hand we have I-Hsing, a Chinese, who was fluent in Sanskrit. Other scholars travelling cross-border included Dharmaraksa and Kasyapa Matanga from India, and Yi Jing, Xuan Zang (Hiuan-Tsang) and Faxian from China. As J. Mohan Malik points out, both countries also have long, rich strategic traditions: Both Kautilya’s Arthashastra— a treatise on war, diplomacy, statecraft, and empire—and Sunzi’s (Sun Tzu’s) Sunzi bingfa (The Art of War) were written over two thousand years ago in India and China, respectively.

At times, these exchanges – of ideas or commodities – are seen as unidirectional. But as Sen points out, there are a number of factors including improper cataloguing and handling of texts and documents which make it difficult to arrive at a conclusion about this. Therefore, who contributed more is always something open to a debate. Fairly sufficient is to acknowledge these bilateral ties that existed long before the word “bilateral” came into existence.

Through the corridors of history, we have witnessed times when both nations were weak, when one of the nations was weak, when both had a cultural bloom, but none in a long time when both have been equally mighty in terms of military and money. As Malik puts it, we are fast approaching that time, and it will be an unprecedented situation, and a lot will remain to be seen when it comes.

Structural realism puts forth the challenge offered by the classical security dilemma – defense for one nation is offense for the other. The Nash equilibrium is in an escalating military strength of the two nations, to the point that both the nations have a bargaining power, and after the 1962 war that broke out, we have seen the two nations constantly heading more and more towards this equilibrium scenario.

An advantage that China enjoys, as Nalin Surie puts it, is something called the “status quo power”. Emerging from a colonial past with the Maoist revolution, China had a head start in terms of holding a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, while being a nuclear power.

The economic and political model of China is a case study in itself – making us question whether it is possible to suppress freedoms if a certain economic standard is ensured – whether bread is really mightier than freedom. (The collapse of USSR was a different case as it could secure neither bread nor freedom to its citizens.) Contradictions do exist within China, and some of them have been highlighted by Nalin Surie, but so far it seems China has succeeded in containing these contradictions.

There are important lessons that these trajectories hold for us. First off, as Sen also underlines, good trade relations between states become vehicle for exchange of culture as well.  As we have discussed earlier, the healthy mix of culture was initiated as well as catalyzed by trade. India had risen to be China’s biggest goods trade partner by 2008, which swelled to a double-digit growth rate in the last decade. After China, it is Canada and Mexico which are the biggest trade partners of the US. This teaches us that trade is a prerequisite for a peaceful neighborhood.

Secondly, it is important to do away with civilizational thinking. As it turns out, thinking on civilizational lines always tempts us to make hasty conclusions and simplistic judgements. A nuanced perspective is always appreciated, which means there is always more to the picture than India being one culture and China being another. 

A third lesson merits discussion and action from a realist point of view. China is increasingly becoming active in world politics, and there are, of course, ideological and strategic tracings behind this approach. The OBOR and CPEC are just two of the many such examples. As an emerging economic power, India is headed that way – with its independence stance in the Ukraine crisis and active involvement in alliances like the Quad – there is a long way to go for India to be at par with the Chinese standards.

Finally, we must acknowledge that while the recent history divides the two nations, it is the geography that unites. The two Asian partners must learn to live in harmony. A balance of power is really crucial to the region, and an imminent eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation must be avoided at all costs. The close of the last decade was a challenging time with military skirmishes and fatalities, and the coming few years are going to be crucial in deciding the future trajectories of the two nations. The future of South Asia – and it won’t be an understatement to say Asia too – depends on the mutual behavior of these two next-door neighbors in the Asian backyard.

[Photo by BedexpStock, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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