China-India relations

A new beginning for China-India relations could transform Asia

Patrick Mendis says Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fresh from their meeting in Wuhan, should be inspired by Kumarajiva, the monk who translated Buddhist texts into Chinese, to forge a mutually beneficial relationship

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2018, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 8:55am

Although the most inescapable news recently was the historic summit between North and South Korea on April 27, a less covered “informal summit” across the Yellow Sea, and one likely to be of equal consequence, is the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This summit could reset the Sino-Indian relationship, one that goes back centuries. 

The two ancient civilisations intersected long before the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220) in China and the era of Emperor Ashoka the Great (273-232BC) in India. Through the trading networks of China’s maritime and silk routes, a wide range of goods, pilgrims and knowledge systems enriched each culture. Among them was the dissemination of Buddhism from India to China, which had a transformative effect on Confucian and Taoist culture

Buddhist sutras were translated into Chinese by famous scholar-monk Kumarajiva, the son of a Hindu father from Kashmir in India and a princess of the ancient kingdom of Kucha, which lies in present-day Xinjiang. Indeed, if China and India want to reset their relationship, the starting point could well be Kumarajiva, whose biological, intellectual and spiritual connection bridges the two nations.

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In recent years, Xi has used Buddhist diplomacy as a foreign policy innovation, especially with Sri Lanka. Modi has also invoked the Buddhist connection in his dealings with Sri Lanka and while visiting China’s Buddhist sites, including the Daxingshan Buddhist Temple and the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. 

India’s regional power has been somewhat weakened by China’s increasing economic engagement with India’s neighbours

The summit, organised at the request of Modi, took place in Wuhan, Hubei province, in central China, which is home to Mao Zedong’s summer villa. The timing and location of the meeting was critical, as the Chinese leadership sought not only to eclipse the American-led denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula but to highlight the significance of Wuhan, considered an intellectual mecca for communist leaders. There, Xi and Modi could draw inspiration from lines from a poem by Mao: “Great plans are afoot: A bridge will fly to span the north and south; Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare.” 

Like US president Richard Nixon’s historic China visit to reset Sino-American relations after the Vietnam war and before his re-election, Modi had two reasons for wanting a summit. 

First, India’s regional power has been somewhat weakened by China’s increasing economic engagement with India’s neighbours Bangladeshthe MaldivesNepalPakistan and Sri Lanka. More importantly, the Chinese military threatened Indian forces in the disputed Doklam plateau on the Bhutan-China-India border last year as Beijing tried to extend a highway towards Bhutan, which has a “special relationship” with New Delhi.

Second, Modi is focusing on winning the national election in 2019 at a time when domestic issues and political protests have seemingly weakened his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. But Modi is a strategic leader, especially in the larger context of China’s transformative leadership in Asia and beyond. 

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China and India – the second and seventh largest economies in the world – represent almost 40 per cent of the world’s population and see each other as leaders of an “Asian century”, just as the United States and Europe are identified with the 20th century’s game of geopolitics involving Russia and the Middle East.

China and India not only need each other for economic reasons, but the two have also traditionally adhered to the ‘non-alignment principle’

China has advanced an assertive foreign policy – with the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the East and South China Sea disputes – while managing its relationships with the US and other European powers. China now rivals and sometimes surpasses the US on many economic and social development indices, according to Harvard professor Graham Allison

In the face of China’s rising global influence, Washington has tried to revitalise its old Indo-Pacific region “quadrilateral” strategy, pitting the democracies of AustraliaJapan, and India together against China’s rise. Yet, this strategy would only work if the US has the economic maturity to address the increased defence expenditures and the much-needed infrastructure development to “make America great again”.

For India, a real alliance with the distant US is problematic, especially with the unreliable Trump administration. China and India not only need each other for economic reasons, but the two countries have also traditionally adhered to the “non-alignment principle” of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, and Mao Zedong, sharing a vision of national sovereignty free of colonial and cold-war mentalities. 

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The Wuhan summit between Xi and Modi is driven by national interest, the fear of external powers and pride in their respective civilisations. While India might consider the US a potential democratic ally to counter China’s assertive behaviour, at this point, being anti-China would not serve India well. 

Instead, the two nations could cooperate on trade, commerce and investment as there are now an increasing number of Indian workers, tourists and students across Chinese universities. They also share common concerns on issues such as climate change, on which the US has disengaged itself. 

China’s global vision is carefully guided and executed by the two pillars of Confucian bureaucracy and the Communist Party. The country’s rapid development and modernisation has proven that Beijing can govern its affairs locally and globally with confidence, more so than India. 

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China’s ruling mechanism is now favourably viewed in many quarters as more effective and efficient in serving its people than the chaotic nature of India’s democratic governance. Only time will tell whether India’s highly-decentralised governing system – with its diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups in a noisy democracy – or China’s form of governance will prove to be more effective. 

Of course, China has similar diversity, albeit managed with a different governing model. 

Just as Nixon triggered a domino effect that changed Sino-American relations, a reset of the China-India relationship could well be a new beginning that transforms the region, as it enters a peaceful Asian century in which power shifts from West to East. 

Professor Patrick Mendis, a Harvard Kennedy School’s former Rajawali senior fellow, is an associate-in-research of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University and a commissioner to the United States National Commission for Unesco at the State Department. The opinions expressed here are the author’s