Xi Jinping’s recent bullet-train ride to Lhasa after landing at Tibet’s Nyingchi-Mainling airport, right next to the Arunachal Pradesh border, has drawn attention to two things.
One is the hazardous 1,629-km rail project, partially completed, to connect China’s large inner city, Chengdu, to Lhasa in the west. Much of the route runs across a fragile, high-altitude, seismically active, and ecologically-precarious terrain. The project’s first segment, a track from Chengdu to Ya’an, is evidently finished, as is the final Nyingchi-Lhasa portion, but the trickiest and longest middle section, from Ya’an to Nyingchi, may take, it is said, another ten years.
Secondly, Xi’s trip to southern Tibet suggested that “he places the border struggle with India close to the very top of China’s national agenda,” to quote Robert Barnett, a British academic who has been following the Tibet scene. Barnett’s assessment is reinforced by the space that China’s state-run media is currently giving to India. What is being acknowledged in these reactions is India’s logistical and military enhancement achieved under a succession of Indian Prime Ministers from Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s to Narendra Modi since 2014.
Realists must recognize a possibly long-lasting India-China rivalry and the necessity for preparedness for hostilities. They need to be mindful also of that tragic insanity which would turn the sacred Himalayas into a massive, lofty, and crumbling burial ground, should dangerous experimentation with vulnerable peaks and cascading rivers be followed by war.
Enmity is easy to perpetuate, and wars may bring political gains to both sides of a border, but the truths of economics, geography, and history are also worth looking at.
According to China’s General Administration of Customs (GAC), in 2020, the year of the Ladakh stand-off, two-way trade between India and China reached $87.6 billion, which was down by 5.6 percent from the previous year. India’s imports from China accounted for $66.7 billion, the lowest figure since 2016, marking a 10.8 percent decline. India’s exports to China, however, rose to the highest figure on record, crossing the $20 billion-mark and growing 16 percent to $20.86 billion in 2020, with iron-ore exports seeing the highest increase. India’s trade deficit fell to a five-year-low of $45.8 billion.
Trade seems to have bounced back this year. Figures from China’s GAC quoted in the state-owned Global Timessuggest that in 2021 China’s trade with India grew 62.7 percent from January to June in dollar terms compared with the same period in the previous year, making China-India trade growth the second-highest in China’s trade (South Africa is No 1). A spurt in India’s imports of Chinese supplies needed for coping with Covid-19 seems to be part of the story.
Evidently, over 23,000 Indian students studied in different courses in Chinese universities and colleges in 2020. Of these, over 21,000 enrolled to become doctors. These numbers have not changed in 2021. In addition, a large number of Indian nationals hold jobs in China with Indian or multinational companies, their total possibly exceeding 30,000. These are not small figures.
If “Red” China has allowed capitalism more than ample scope, it also seems to have accepted some realities regarding religious or philosophical beliefs. While Confucianism has been respected and co-opted by the Chinese state, Buddhism no longer seems to receive the ideological derision that was common under Mao. Many Indians don’t realize that the Buddha is venerated everywhere in China, not merely in Tibet. If numbers matter, then China with its scores of millions of Buddha devotees is a good deal more Buddhist than India.
Indians are aware of Chinese scholars who centuries ago made difficult journeys to India to obtain Buddhist texts, and in the process, recorded Indian history that might have disappeared. The most famous of these scholar-pilgrims, Xuanzang, is an honoured name in India.
However, most Indians are unaware that perhaps the most popular epic tale in China is a 16th-century text, Xi You Ji, or “Journey to the West”, which describes part of Xuanzang’s 7th-century pilgrimage to India in a fictionalized, suspense-filled, and funny story of adventure. A four-volume translation of “Journey to the West” by the American scholar, Anthony C. Yu, who died in 2015, is perhaps the best-known English version.
Thanks to the Buddha and to “Journey to the West”, India has been part of Chinese consciousness for centuries. Given this history, and given the Himalayan bridge, notions of lasting enmity between the people of India and the people of China have to be dismissed out of hand.
On the other hand, geopolitics, the ambitions of rulers, and boundary disputes require cold analysis on the basis of hard facts, not all of them available to columnists. It may be legitimate, nevertheless, to make a few broad points. One, relations between two large neighbours who between them hold close to three billion people are far too important to be left to a handful of leaders and their advisers. Two, while the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia “Quad” may contain useful elements, attempts to polarize the peoples of Asia and the world into two camps, one led by the U.S. and the other by China, could prove costly. As the Kabul government has found out, super-powers do not provide permanent umbrellas.
Far more than the Quad, the freedom of India’s individual citizen, and the citizens’ ability to vote out political leaders, is India’s most impactful message for the people of China. To their envy, we in India have been able thus far to laugh at our leaders, rebuke them, and send them home. If we lose that advantage, the game will be over.
(Rajmohan Gandhi is presently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
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