Potentials in trade, investment and tourism must be realised, for which both must open up new routes of connectivity. Civilisational studies need to be encouraged.
In late April, Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning in the US State Department, stirred a controversy by describing the US-China competition as essentially a clash of civilisations, ideologies and races. She said, “This is a fight with a really different civilisation and a different ideology and the United States hasn’t had that before.” She further said, “The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family.” “It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
Even if trade is not the real issue between the established and emerging hegemons, Skinner’s construct of the clash of civilisations, ideologies and races is not only unfounded but also smacks of the “White Man’s Burden” theory, and certainly of Sinophobia in the minds of American elites. Civilisations, whether Eastern or Caucasian (Greco-Roman), are the collective creation of mankind, they do not belong to one “nation state”. They rather teach mutual learning and peaceful coexistence. As regards the ideologies, the ideologies of the cold war era are long defunct; no one takes them seriously in China or perhaps in North Korea too. If this is the way the US wishes to deal with a challenger, I believe it is dangerously and grossly ill-conceived.
These outbursts essentially should be read in tandem with Samuel Huntington’s essay on the “Clash of Civilisations” and his outdated theory of “uni-multipolar world”, as well as President Donald Trump’s advocacies of “America first” and “Make America Great Again”. The withdrawal of the US from various institutions of global governance that it created in the wake of its ascendance to superpower status, demonstrates that the US is increasingly doubting the liberal order it preached so fiercely until quite recently. Now compare these outbursts with how China is responding and executing its foreign policy goals. On 25 April, after successfully hosting the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation that was attended by 37 heads of states and over 6,000 delegates, China held the first ever Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations (CDAC) on 15 May, attended by almost 2,000 delegates from all over the world, but mostly from Asian countries. President Xi Jinping made keynote speeches on both the occasions and sat through the Asian Culture Carnival on the 16 May evening of the CDAC for over two hours with the delegates.
In his keynote address to the CDAC, without naming the US, he rubbished the “clash of civilisations” theory and said that “if someone thinks their own race and civilisation is superior and insists on remoulding or replacing other civilisations, it would be a stupid idea and disastrous act”. He further said, “We should hold up equality and respect, abandon pride and prejudice, deepen our knowledge about the differences between our own and other civilisations, and promote harmonious dialogue and coexistence between civilisations.” During his speech, President Xi reiterated China’s resolve to implement the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and argued that the same expanded the civilisational dialogue. Contrary to President Trump’s “America First” and “Make America Great Again”, Xi has been floating the idea of “Community of Shared Future” by way of enacting the spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefits. Needless to say, even if some countries remain wary of China’s rise, given the choice between the new “consensuses” being formulated in Washington and Beijing, it is the latter which is more attractive.
Since I participated in both BRI and the CDAC, the absence of India was conspicuous, especially in the latter one. I do not know if China was fearful of Indian rebuff or India opted out because of the general elections, whatever may be the case, it doesn’t augur well for India-China relations. It also makes mockery of the oft-touted “Wuhan Spirit.” I believe we should have been there for the following reasons.
First of all, if we look at the history of mankind, of the four oldest civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China, the latter two are in Asia and are interestingly living civilisations. With the Greek and Roman civilisations, these formed four distinct cultures—Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Western. Contrary to the “clash of civilisations” theory, these systems engaged in inter-civilisational dialogues through the free flow of commodities, capital, technology and people. The birth of Chinese Buddhism or the dissemination of ancient Indian and Central Asian polities’ astronomy, literature, music, languages into China or technologies such as sugar making, paper manufacturing, steel smelting, silk, porcelain, tea, etc., travelling from China to other countries enriched the knowledge systems across the world beyond doubt. In India, if we had to write a history of India-foreign cultural exchanges, I would say that most of it would be our exchanges with China, the same would be true to China. Not only in ancient times, but also in modern history—take a leaf from history and we will see our nationalists joining hands, the Ghadr Party operating their offices in many cities across China, Tagore and Dr Kotnis building bridges between the two people and so on. There have been a few aberrations including the 1962 war, but that is no reason for not engaging with China.
Secondly, it was owing to the inclusivism of the Orient that the Indian and Chinese civilisations produced more than 50% of the world GDP and maintained that for around 1,700 years since our common era. Xi Jinping’s Narrating China’s Governance: Stories in Xi Jinping’s Speeches tells us that during the golden period of Chinese civilisation, i.e. the Tang dynasty, of all its foreign ministers, 29 were foreigners, while the number of foreigners serving as officials were as many as 3,000. The US as a melting pot of different cultures, and attracting best of the talents that contributed immensely to the American Century is another example. Obviously, exchanges between two or more cultures produce a phenomenon which is uniquely complex—there is exchange, there is confluence, there is assimilation, there is disintegration, there is struggle, there is resistance, there is absorption and there is rejection. No one knows it and experiences it better than the Indian people. Therefore, history evolves continuously, and the process of fusion of cultures also carries on consistently. Both India and China have witnessed this for centuries.
Thirdly, the kind of value system that has evolved in India and China carries the indelible imprints of this exchange. Qinghua University professor, Chen Lai has attempted to list the characteristics and values of the Chinese civilisation as: morality more important than law, this life more important than the afterlife, community more important than the individual, the spiritual more important than the material, responsibility more important than rights, the well being of the people more important than democracy, order more important than freedom, and harmony more valuable than struggle. Some of these may have infused with Chinese characteristics, but I don’t think these are very different from our values which of course include benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty and filial piety, among others.
Finally, it is pointless to argue who will dominate whom; however, it should be argued how much we know about ourselves and other civilisations. I must admit that India and China know very little about each other irrespective of having civilisational dialogues for over two millennia. Therefore, various steps need to be taken by both sides. First and foremost, civilisational studies need to be encouraged. For this we need to build capacities in Chinese and Indian studies in respective countries. Mutual translations of classics, modern and contemporary works need to be initiated by universities and think tanks that will bring together the scholars, publishers and readers in a big way. People to people exchanges are the pillar of all dialogues. Had it not been for the scholar-monks from India and China, today we would not have had Chinese Buddhism and the entire repository of Buddhist literature in East Asia. In the present context, the flow of people between India and China is extremely skewed. I believe there is a huge scope to strengthen and broaden its scope. We must recognise each other’s degrees, credits and liberalise student visas. Potentials in trade, investment and tourism must be realised optimally, for which both must open up new routes of connectivity. Simultaneously, border trade must not be overlooked, rather expanded and consolidated. The list of trading items, for example in Nathu La, could be expanded. New routes of pilgrimage to Mansarovar through Himachal Pradesh could be explored. The only answer to materialise all this is dialogue—and any dialogue, whether of Asian or world civilisation, is incomplete without dialogue between India and China.
B.R. Deepak Professor of Chinese and China Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.