Monday, October 23, 2017

China-India Relations: Millennia of Peaceful Coexistence Meet Modern Day Geopolitical Interests

Kadira Pethiyagoda,

Image (not from article) from, with caption: [A] report cites an increase in Chinese activity along the border with India.

The China-India dispute over the Doklam plateau and the two states' subsequent fence-mending at the BRICS summit have brought into focus what will be one of the most important relationships in the future world order. While the last half-century has seen antagonism between India and China, in the context of thousands of years of civilizational cultural exchange, it is an anomaly resulting from strategic and economic interests. Cultivating awareness of this history amongst the publics of each country may provide one small step toward mitigating tensions, in contexts where policymakers wish to do so. ...

Harnessing Historical Awareness
Both countries' overarching ambition — to rise in international standing — is underpinned by attributes that are common to the two countries. This includes a relatively high degree of historical awareness held by policymakers and the public, including both ideas of a "great pre-colonial past" and of colonial humiliation. Both states have more civilizational continuity than other major global powers. The dominant cultures and identities of India and China have undergone less transformation than other great civilizations of the Mediterranean and Middle East. The two societies maintain the value of hierarchy and are led by foreign policy elites that have ingested these values into their geopolitical worldviews and policymaking. On the one hand, these common attributes make reconciliation difficult, as issues of territory and sovereignty have added sensitivity.

On the other hand, focusing this awareness on the past millennia of peaceful coexistence and cultural exchange can assist policymakers in both countries to reduce the domestic political incentives for antagonism, on occasions where they seek to do so. Of course, to alter public perceptions, policymakers would need to reorient the post-independence Panchsheel era's top-down approach, and make concerted attempts to engage ordinary people. If the Indian public viewed China in a broader context that includes linkages like China's adoption of Indian Buddhism, rather than exclusively focusing on present-day sources of antagonism like Sino-Pakistan ties, it could provide leaders in Delhi greater room to maneuver on matters like the border dispute. Modi himself has opted to emphasize ties via Buddhism and Hinduism in his outreach to Southeast Asia and South Asia. To highlight cultural ties to the other country's publics, Delhi and Beijing could deploy various soft power tools including: educational exchange, social media, traditional media, tourism, and greater resourcing of public diplomacy centers like the Nehru Centers and Confucius Institutes.

Of course the overriding power of divergent geopolitical interests may mean the risk of conflict will remain in the medium term. Nevertheless, making efforts in the aforementioned directions may present at least one avenue for greater trust in one of the 21st centuries most important relationships.

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