By Manish Uprety F.R.A.S. and Dr. Yiyong Liang*
Informal meetings are a rarity between two formal regional powers, more so between two tea-drinking nations that comprise over 37% of the human population. The Modi-Xi informal meeting in Mamallapuram – a World Heritage Site in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu – falls into the very category. What and where shall it lead to is anybody’s guess?
The U.S. President Donald Trump has declared a trade war on China. And at a time when the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meets to discuss the fate of China’s all weather ally Pakistan for its deep involvement in international terrorism, many perceive the visit of Xi Jinping as a balancing act by China.
The new bonhomie between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi is also perceived as akin to between Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru, and what happened in the aftermath is a common knowledge. The Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai also visited the heritage site of Mamallapuram in 1956 when the relationship between the two nations was underlined by the ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ spirit.
Similarities can be drawn between Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi, and Zhou Enlai and Xi Jinping. All of these leaders have strong personalities and an aspiration to be global leaders of their times. Hence should one be ready for another big fiasco.
On the other hand, many feel quite positive about the developments and are very hopeful that synergies would develop between India and China, and it will lead to shared peace and prosperity.
Every hope has a sound basis to it. George Bernard Shaw once quipped that England and America are two countries separated by the same language. On similar lines it can be posited that China and India are separated by a common culture and values, as the bond between the two countries goes back to as long as the commencement of the Christian Era (CE) and more.
Hu Shih, former Chinese ambassador to the USA once said “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border,” while referring to Buddhism that played a significant part in developing the Chinese thought by mixing with local schools of Confucianism and Taoism.
The result was a mix which advocated Dharmic values such as humanistic or rationalistic thought, a simple way of life, and humility and religious piety; that manifest even in the contemporary times. In a way, it is a unique bond that connects no two other major civilizations in the world.
Both countries were conquered and occupied by brutal foreign forces which had a deep impact on their societies, culture, economy and psyche. While India’s conquest by the Islam is termed by noted historian Will Durant as probably the bloodiest story in history, Islamic conquest of China was restricted to its western frontiers.
Later on, the impact of European colonization was also very detrimental to both the countries. The famed British economic historian Angus Maddison had calculated that in 1000 AD, China and India together contributed 50.5% of world GDP [GDP being computed in 1990 dollars and in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms]. By 1600, that share had gone up to 51.4%, with China accounting for 29% and India 22.4% of world GDP. A hundred years later, China’s GDP had fallen but India’s went up to 24.4% of world output. By 1820, however, India’s share had fallen to 16.1%. By 1870, it went down to 12.2%.
Noted economist Utsa Patnaik has calculated that over roughly 200 years, the East India Company and the British Raj siphoned out at least GBP 9.2 Trillion (or USD 44.6 Trillion; since the exchange rate was USD4.8 per GBP sterling during much of the colonial period) from India. In the colonial era, most of India’s sizeable foreign exchange earnings went straight to London—severely hampering the country’s ability to import machinery and technology in order to embark on a modernisation path similar to what Japan did in the 1870s.
Renowned statistician-economist Dr. Subarmanian Swamy who has worked with Nobel laureates like Simon Kuznets and Paul Samuelson calculates the amount looted by the British from India to be USD 71 Trillion.
By the same token, in China’s case, the country was forced to become a semi-colonial and semi-feudal state when it was humiliated by the British during the Opium War in 1840.
European colonization also extracted a heavy social and cultural cost from both the countries. Samuel Pepys mentions about the very common and close encounters of the turd kind in 17th century Britain when throwing human waste out of the windows was a prevalent practice amongst the British households.
During the same time period, the Taj Mahal and Potala Palace were completed in the Eastern part of the world. The fall of both China and India had been very steep since European colonization, and only in the last few decades both the countries started overcoming the challenges they faced.
In 1978, nine out of 10 people in China’s population of a billion were struggling to survive on an income below the World Bank defined “extreme poverty line.” However, between 1981 and 2004, China succeeded in lifting more than half a billion people out of extreme poverty. World Bank president Robert Zoellick called it the greatest leap to overcome poverty in history.
In July 2019, the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) noted that India lifted 271 million people out of poverty between 2006 and 2016, recording the fastest reductions in the multidimensional poverty index values during the period with strong improvements in areas such as “assets, cooking fuel, sanitation and nutrition.
Only on October 2, 2019, to mark the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Modi announced that 99 per cent of rural villages in India have declared themselves open defecation free. However, many more challenges remain both nationally and internationally to be overcome by both countries.
In the recent past China-India relations achieved comprehensive and rapid development, featuring more frequent high-level interactions, exploration of mechanisms and cooperation in economy and trade, and cooperation in broader areas including education, culture, media and exchanges between the two peoples.
However, border issues might play a role in the clash between the two civilizations. The abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) by India and making it a regular Indian Union Territory puts China in an awkward place. If China goes along with its stand that J&K must be resolved both bilaterally and as per UN Security Council resolutions, it implies that the part of J&K occupied by China in the 1962 war (Aksai Chin), and the territory that Pakistan ceded to it under a 1963 boundary demarcation agreement, the extension of the Indian Constitution to J&K effectively makes China a party to the dispute, will also get internationalized. It is a Catch-22 situation for China.
How these issues will be sorted out and mechanisms developed to address the situation needs to be seen. There is a great mismatch between the speed and focus of the bureaucracies of the two countries. China though a communist state has an efficient government bureaucracy with a clear focus whereas the Indian babudom is a notorious bureaucracy which has been the country’s bane for long.
Though Modi tried to trim the flab of the government, and many high level senior civil servants perceived to be corrupt and inefficient were identified and weeded out by conducting regular evaluation of their performance, much needs to be done. There seems a policy negligence to address the current and evolving challenges as far as India is concerned.
How will the initiatives undertaken by the two countries to solve their internal and international disputes would be perceived by the international media is also an important area as optics matter a lot in international relations. Publications like The New York Times, BBC and Al Jazeera which play an important role to affect global opinion are well known to have their own deep-rooted institutional biases towards many countries such as India and China.
There is an important lesson one can learn from Mamallapuram which survived hundreds of years of temple destruction by Muslim rulers and the rapacious rule of British, Portuguese, Dutch and French that life goes on for the ones whose roots run deep. One should always look at the bright side. A growing recognition of the fact that strong and steady economic growth of China and India would not only benefit the peoples of the two countries but also serve as a strong driving force for the world economy is something to look forward to.
But international politics though very complex is full of unexpected surprises. How will the visit after a gap of 63 years to Mamallapuram, a World Heritage Site famous for its rock-cut sculptures by another top Chinese leader, fares is anybody’s guess. In the aftermath of Modi-Xi Jinping meeting, Stanely Kubrick’s classic, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, comes to mind, and one feels like preparing for the worst, expecting the best, taking what comes with a smile.
* Manish Uprety F.R.A.S. is an ex-diplomat and Dr. Yiyong Liang is an academic.