This calls for abandoning the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum games between the two countries. Both must negotiate mutual, equal and sustainable security.
The first ever India-China High Level Mechanism on Cultural and People-to-People Exchanges was inaugurated on 21 December by Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and her counterpart and State Councillor Wang Yi in New Delhi. The mechanism is a product of the “Wuhan Spirit” and the consensus reached between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the unofficial Wuhan Summit in April. The summit marked the rebalancing of India-China relations after a dangerous 73-day military confrontation at Doklam in the wake of China blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and a UN ban on the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar.
Why is there need for such a mechanism at the highest level? At the outset, it was the unhindered circulation of ideas, technology, objects and people that enriched the Indian and Chinese civilisations. Whether it was the birth of Chinese Buddhism or the dissemination of ancient Indian and Central Asian astronomy, literature, music and languages into China, or technologies such as sugar making, paper manufacturing, steel smelting, silk, porcelain, tea, etc., travelling from China to India and other countries—all this enriched the knowledge systems across the world. Moreover, this happened owing to the unimpeded flow of people. For example, the translation industry this created in China had people from India and many Central Asian polities. Most importantly, these were the people who were responsible for creating the entire repository of Buddhist literature in China and Northeast Asia, which in fact preserved many of the sutras that have been lost in India. Therefore, it the “learning from civilisations”—rather than Samuel Huntington’s thesis of the “clash of civilisations”—that was at the core of these exchanges. Presently, even though there is a flow of one million people between India and China, however, there is tremendous scope for taking these exchanges to new heights, especially in the fields of trade, tourism and education.
Secondly, Chinese and Indian studies in each other’s countries need to be encouraged and strengthened so as capacities are built across government and private sectors for better understanding. Of course one may ask how many China experts India has produced since Independence. Though some measures were taken in the wake of the border conflict; a decade ago, in 2009, an Act of Parliament to establish new Central universities was passed, however, before and post this Act, only around 20 universities in India are offering Chinese language courses, most of which are only certificate and diploma courses including in Delhi University where these courses started in 1964. Now compare it with Chinese learning in the United States. According to last year’s National K-12 Foreign Language Enrolment Survey Report, as many as 227,086 students got enrolled in Chinese language courses ranging from kindergarten to Grade 12. It is projected that the number will go up to one million by 2020. These numbers do not include college and university students, and if included the numbers will go past the 300,000-mark. In recent years, though the number of Chinese universities offering courses in Hindi has gone up to around 12, but still that is not good enough given the large populations of India and China. Furthermore, student exchange between India and China is highly asymmetrical. Most Indian students studying in Chinese universities—around 20,000—are in the field of medicine, whereas the presence of Chinese students in Indian universities is minuscule—around 2,000. The Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the premier institutes of the country, hosts not more than 25 Chinese students. The biggest hurdle is non-recognition of each other’s degrees, besides many other bottlenecks like accommodation and accepting each other’s credit systems. The removal of these bottlenecks will enhance the flow of students, joint research and seminars between the two countries on the one hand and understanding of each other on the other.
Thirdly, both India and China being members of many multilateral forums such as BRICS and the SCO have signed many important people to people exchange mechanisms. For example, a comprehensive Action Plan for the Implementation of the Agreement between the Governments of the BRICS States on Cooperation in the Field of Culture (2017-2021) was signed in 2017. The action plan envisages establishment of a BRICS alliance of art museums, national galleries, libraries, media and publishing industry. Besides, the plan encourages international cultural and art festivals, joint programmes on archaeological researches, cooperation across creative and commercial sectors, including performing arts, visual arts, audiovisual, music, gastronomy, fashion, literature, yoga, animation and games, new media, cultural and creative merchandise development, and the training of the people engaged in these fields. The plan is indeed very ambitious; however, similar action plans are required to be taken at bilateral levels and may yield more results. The increased presence of media personnel and objective reporting by both sides may add to better understanding of each other.
Thirdly, the bond between researchers and the publishing industry is an area that has not been accorded due importance. After all, how many books from China and vice versa are being translated and disseminated in each other’s countries? Remember, it was the translators from India, China and Central Asian countries who built a huge repository of Buddhist literature in China and were responsible for changing the entire socio-cultural landscape of East Asia in ancient times. I believe that it was a movement, and a similar movement is required to turn the relationship strong and benevolent. The mutual translation of classics and contemporary works memorandum signed between India and China, which I am coordinating, is a very good example. The memorandum envisages the translation of 25 representative Chinese books and authors into Hindi and vice-versa. Some of the books include Confucian Classics in the form of four books, Journey to the West during Great Tang, The Romance of Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Mansion, The Scholars, and the works of modern and contemporary writers such as Ba Jin, Mao Dun, Lao She, Moyan, Jia Pingwa, A Lai etc.
Fourthly, tourism and pilgrimage will reinvent the bonding and nostalgia that existed between the civilisations in history. It was by way of these pilgrimages and journeys that the spiritual and material civilisations of Asia and elsewhere benefited immensely from each other. A multi-layered approach as regards building better bonding by way of establishing sister municipalities, cities, and provinces needs to be expanded. At present, India and China have just 14 sister-cities agreements; seven more are likely to be signed soon. These measures would help lay a solid foundation for connectivity, trade and commerce, and above all robust bilateral relations.
Finally, people to people dialogue must be accompanied with the resolution of thorny issues, which call for abandoning the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum games between the two. Both must negotiate mutual, equal and sustainable security as envisaged in some of the confidence building mechanisms. Both India and China need to be mindful of the fact that the bilateral security boundary is not just limited to the border issue, but has sprawled into various other fields such as maritime, river water, cybersecurity, counter terrorism and various other non-traditional securities. In view of this, both need to establish new dialogue mechanisms while substantiating or replacing the older ones. Both must agree that India-China relationship is one of the most important relationships that will shape the future international order.
B.R. Deepak is Professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.