The Strategist

India-China and the Sometime Pickle of Civilisational Connects

14 Nov, 2019    ·   5629

Vice Adm (Retd) Vijay Shankar questions the relevance of civilisational linkages between the two countries in their attempt to build a mutually beneficial relationship

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Distinguished Fellow

The Peloponnesian War (431- 404 BCE), was a significant event of the ancients as it reshaped the Hellenic world. A hegemonistic Athens and its trading vassals was challenged by Sparta backed by the xenophobic Peloponnesian League. In the end, the Spartan side came on top. But the central question that emerged was, what made like peoples (civilisationally) fight a long and debilitating war? Explanations rarely go beyond Graham Allison’s "What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta," and yet what remains unexplored is the invidiousness of civilisational 'hook ups'.

Through history, as many wars have been fought as there have been civilisationally connected peoples. The Mauryan campaigns of the 4th century BC began with war and conquest of the Nanda Empire; interestingly the protagonists shared a common progenitor. The Crusades (1096-1291 AD) began with Pope Urban II’s call for a war to recover the holy land from Muslim rule. It degenerated to a riot of pillage ending in the fall of Jerusalem and victory for the Muslims. The war ironically was fought between peoples of the ‘Word’. The interminable wars in Europe waged between 12th and 17th centuries AD were largely fought over family rivalries, prestige, and succession. The Colonial Wars that found roots in piracy before expanding into a world-wide feuding network of discriminatory trade practices was a confrontation between practitioners of 'western civilisation' that culminated in the World Wars of the 20th century, fought for domination and imperial glory.

The farther back we look, the more we note that despite there being civilisational ties, nations went to bloody wars, rather than find alternatives. Was it because they knew each other too well? Or were causes due to the nature of nation-states involved – their creation, development, and quest for self-sufficiency? What is clear is that no modern nation can leanon a unique history that is in itself self-explanatory. Because a civilisation in its life span is faced by a succession of challenges that often fragment the whole, resulting in each element providing solutions as best as they may. It brings about self-sustaining divisions that live, work, and fight to the dictates of traditions common to them to the exclusion and oftenin conflict with the other elements. Against this backdrop, how relevant and to what effect is the current government in India backing its civilisational ties with China to build a mutually beneficial relationship?

Colonial exhaustion and defeat of imperial powers in the 20th century gave rise to Communism in China and its evolution to a "centrally controlled market economy that tolerated political activity only by the Party;" it is the antithesis of the development of parliamentary democracy in India. Ironically, history attributes the entry of Mahayana Buddhism in 3 BCE from its home in India for the part it played in developing Chinese civilisation and its implanting amongst the Sinic people. These civilisational bonds over the millennia grew as human interaction and trade flourished, first over land and then by sea.

Imperial competition in the 18th and 19th centuries spurred by search for resources, increasing demand, and lure of easy wealth marked the advent of colonial empires and the breakdown of traditional linkages. Awkwardly, trade networks now were routed through the parent colonist. An unintended fallout of this disruption was nationalistic fervour that neither had the experience of managing affairs of the state nor could they see beyond the coloniser and their reviled formula of trade-settlement-conquest. The artificially stretched geography had effectively fragmented civilisational bonds and replaced it by concepts that came unstuck rather than coalescing.

In this milieu, it must come as no surprise that China and India opted for self-government so profoundly different and with such a varied interpretation of what and who was the 'self' to be governed. While the former claimed exclusive authority of people freed of feudal and capitalistic exploitation and holding membership of the Chinese Communist Party, the latter derived its authority from a more abstract interpretation of what represented the will of the nation under one constitution. There are inconvenient anomalies to both concepts. That being as it may, the reality is that China and India share borders that extends over 3,500 km ridden by 'cartographic incongruities'. Concurrently, historical events such as the invasion of Tibet, flight of the Dalai Lama to India, stoking of Maoist insurgencies in India, the lack of a consensual basis for boundary resolution be it the Johnson, MacDonald, or McMahon lines, a border war, and the underlying looming strategic competition, have all served to stress relations.

Even the approach taken by the two countries to development and growth cannot be at greater odds. China, since the mid-seventies, has become the manufacturing hub of the world; while India since the mid-nineties has become the favoured destination for outsourcing of a range of services from software development and call centres to 'back-room' services and sophisticated research reports for analysts and decision-makers. India’s primary aim is of being a dominant knowledge power. But tensions remain, not just caused by legacy.

For China it is the inability to reconcile a free market economy with a repressive authoritarian regime. It has chosen to distract its people through whipping up nationalistic passions and implementing aggressive revisionist policies. For India, it is its population and the nature of its polity that tends to hold it back. Both have a common quest, to achieve and sustain great power status. China’s striving for dominance in the political arena is backed by first-rate military capability. Challenged by the international system, it has turned a competitive face to relations with other powers.While India would appear to have chosen a cooperative slant, its exertion of power is through international bodies, its success at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and to win support at the UN on its stand on climate change, renewable energy, and terrorism are issues that have not gone unnoticed.

Given this state of play, and the harsh fact that the principle of nationalism is almost always intimately linked to the idea of war, it will take an act of great statesmanship between the two diverse Asian giants to bury their differences and build upon their hoary civilisational bonds. But even if this were to be so, the question that begs to be answered is: to whose benefit, and to what end?


Vice Adm (Retd) Vijay Shankar is Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command of India.