During my lecture tour of universities in China last week, India’s relationship with China flared up, courtesy another border dispute, this time at Sikkim. While Chinese students were curious about India – asking me questions ranging from the Sakyamuni Buddha to Aamir Khan – the border question, surprisingly, never came up. Matters of diplomacy are rarely influenced by public opinion, especially those of students in their formative years. But India’s relationship with China is one that encompasses not just recent history, with war and border transgressions, but also delves from historical narratives. Let me illustrate this relationship and its potential by considering three specific historical episodes.
A Peaceful Border?
In 1841, General Zorawar Singh Kahluria of the Sikh Empire led a 5,000-strong army into Tibet from Ladakh, passing Lake Mansarovar, reaching Gartok and Taklakot, sweeping an arc from Ladakh to Nepal. When the onset of winter, coupled with heavy losses in the Battle of Toyo in 1841, sparked a retreat, the Qing Empire gave chase, advancing on Ladakh and laying siege to Leh. Reinforcements from Jammu soon came and repulsed them, beating them decisively at the Battle of Chushul (1842). Contrary to expectations, the pre-independence history of India and China’s borders has not always been peaceful.
Skirmishes like this across the border have occurred more often than not – Emperor Tang Taizong apparently sent across a force of over 8,000 infantry led by Wang Xuance to conduct a punitive raid on Magadha in 648 AD. Migrations have happened in hordes as well – the prince of Mong Mao, Chao-lung Sukaphaa journeyed in 1228, with 9,000 Tai followers, from the Shan valley in Yunnan province to the Brahmaputra Valley. The Tai tribe soon merged with local tribes to form the Tai-Ahom people in Assam. An isolated existence of the two nations, across the Himalayas, has actually been a historical anomaly.
Over the past few years, border transgressions have become increasingly frequent as China expands its influence, testing Indian resolve. India’s response has been measured and principled, seeking to stand its ground while de-escalating where possible. As both countries rise, egged on by populist media, tensions are likely to escalate – it’s not like there is a shortage of potential flashpoints – for one, Tibet (India as a democracy cannot simply look away) will always remain.
While such skirmishes will continue, resolving the nearly 3,500-km border issue could take decades. Our concerns about China’s investments in our periphery will continue – large investments to buy influence ($62 billion proposed for Pakistan, $24 billion for Bangladesh, $8.3 billion in Nepal); through debt (Sri Lanka owes China $8 billion and has now been forced to offer equity swaps in airports, along with a 99-year lease of Hambantota port to China); and in some cases, even transferring land (Tajikistan ceded 1% of its territory to China as part of debt forgiveness measure). Breaking the impasse requires a return to the negotiating table to resolve the border issue in a fair and reasonable manner based on sound strategic principles.
This process, however complicated, should not prevent us from meaningful cooperation where our interests coincide. We share similar goals in deterring climate change and expanding access to Western markets, particularly in services. Such cooperation can even take strange turns – membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) means that China, India and Pakistan could even conduct military drills together.
In 1403, the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di of the Ming Dynasty in China commissioned the construction of a grand treasure fleet which was commanded on seven expeditions by Admiral Zheng He. The first voyage in 1405 had the treasure fleet sailing to Champa, Java, Malacca, Aru, Ceylon, Qiulon and Calicut, with a ship splitting off to visit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The second voyage in 1407 saw the fleet visiting along similar ports, while landing in Cochin and Calicut and participating in the investiture of Mana Vikraan as the King of Calicut. The same voyage also saw the fleet conduct punitive action against the King of West Java. The third voyage in 1409 saw the fleet engaging in a military confrontation with King Alakeshvara of Ceylon in 1411, invading Kotte, and taking King Alakeshvaracaptive to Beijing. The next set of voyages routinely used Calicut, Cochin and Bengal as pit-stops for exploring Arabia and Africa, establishing Ming China as the pre-eminent naval power of the 15th century and drawing numerous kingdoms into its tributary system.
As the “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative gathers steam, we see this pattern similarly repeated, with Chinese ships visiting key Indian Ocean countries, doling out investments and establishing skewed trading relationships. Port investments have been made, in places like Hambantota, Penang, Kuantan, Kalibaru and Malacca, while naval bases are being set up in Djibouti and Gwadar. China has expended significant effort in trying to get India onboard OBOR, with diplomatic permutations even suggesting changing the name of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to suit India’s preferences.
India has been wise to hold strong, protecting its nascent industries from being exposed to oversupply in China’s factories. Where India can cooperate with China is to utilize the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) corridor as an avenue for expanding trade, while boosting livelihood and infrastructure in the North-East. We must carefully cherry-pick China’s expanding bouquet of investment options, while avoiding the fateful choice made by Pakistan (CPEC’s master plan showcases China acquiring thousands of acres of agricultural land, building surveillance systems in cities like Peshawar and Karachi and dominating its agricultural and industrial economy while privileging Chinese citizens, all for the pittance of $1 billion a year).
Let us not overplay our hand – building our manufacturing strength and bolstering employment will require encouraging Chinese companies like Foxconn and BYD to invest in India’s industrial economy. It will also require keeping our markets open to their penetration, whether in electronics (consider how Oppo and Vivo have flourished in India’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities) or in automotive (encouraging electric cars will require electric car manufacturers, mostly Chinese, to manufacture in India). We need $455 billion of investments in infrastructure development in the next 5 years – Chinese banks can help provide that, albeit only at suitable commercial rates. However, as in the day of Zheng He, China’s road to dominating Asia and exporting its overproduction (in areas as varied as capital goods, high speed rail, steel and solar panels) will require access to India’s strategic location and its market.
OBOR is currently a strategic project (it’s still cheaper though slower to ship goods via sea instead of trucks or train from Guangzhou to Berlin, via Kazakhstan and Russia). The land and sea routes arrive at no large markets till Europe except India (it makes little economic sense to build a railroad from Tibet to Nepal, unless one were to extend it to Bihar in the future). While joining OBOR, especially CPEC, remains out of the question, India needs to be brought onboard other joint mechanisms, with all its sensitivities about security concerns, trade deficits and border transgressions kept paramount. Utilizing Chinese financing and expertise for building our comprehensive national strength will hold us in good measure in the future. Pursuing this trade does not imply giving up on our national interests but it does imply biding one’s time while building our capabilities.
On Cultural Transfer
In 627, a young Chinese monk, Xuangzang, had a dream that convinced him to travel from China to India. As partially chronicled in “Journey to the West”, one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, Xuangzang (more popularly known as Hsuan-tsang in India), reached India in 630 AD, passing through Bamiyan and Purushapura (now Peshawar), Taxila, Jalandhar, Mathura, Nalanda, Amravati, Kanchi, Ajanta and Pragjyotishpura (now Guwahati) returning back to Chang’an in 645 AD. His journeys led him to study with a variety of Buddhist masters, taking 657 Sanskrit texts back with him, and developing the Faxiang school of Buddhism. His careful translations of Indian Buddhist texts to Chinese have enabled researchers to recover lost Buddhist texts, especially given the destruction of the famed Buddhist monasteries of Taxila, Nalanda, Vikramshila and Odantapuri. His journey exemplifies the best of India and China’s relationship, offering benefits to both parties, amidst amity. For China, India has historically served as a source of learning, while China in turn has offered a variety of innovations (including the compass, paper, tea, gunpowder, printing and silk). Even Zheng He’s famed voyages have left a cultural imprint – Chinese fishing nets in Kochi and the Galle Trilingual Inscription in Sri Lanka (honoring Buddha, Vishnu and Allah).
Despite differing political systems, we have historically exchanged goods and ideas through routes as varied as the Silk Route and coastal shipping. Our billion-plus populations ensure that we face challenges that are different to most other countries; our solutions are different as well. China has excelled at building integrated high-speed railways, while India has built a national identification system (Aadhaar) from scratch to scale. We can benefit from expanding people-to-people relationships.
To simply voice hope that India and China be partners-in-arms would be naive, but we can take steps to shift the relationship onto a more stable and even keel. We must hold strong to our security interests, but that does leave potential for a partnership. India and China, two civilization-states, cannot be at loggerheads forever – this relationship, one between 2.6 billion people, is the one that will determine the fate of Asia and the world at large.