Learning from Neighbors

Both China and India need to establish new mechanisms for dialogue while improving or replacing the old.
by B. R. Deepak
January 1, 2019: Students from India and Sri Lanka take part in sampling the quality of agricultural products at a wholesale market for agricultural products in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. VCG

The first-ever India-China High-level Mechanism on Cultural and People-to-People Exchanges was launched on December 21, 2018 in New Delhi by Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and her counterpart State Councilor Wang Yi. This mechanism is the product of the “Wuhan Spirit” and the consensus reached between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the unofficial Wuhan meeting in April. The meeting marked a rebalancing of India-China relations after a 73-day military standoff at Donglang (Doklam).

Why is such a mechanism at the highest level necessary? At first, it was to promote unhindered circulation of ideas, technology, objects and people that enriched the Indian and Chinese civilizations. From the birth of Chinese Buddhism and the dissemination of ancient Indian and Central Asian astronomy, literature, music and languages into China to the introduction of technologies such as sugar making, paper making, steel smelting, silk, porcelain and tea from China to India and other countries, trade and communication between China and India have enriched knowledge systems around the world. Moreover, these developments were possible because of the unimpeded flow of people. The translation industry, for example, was created in China but involved people from India and many Central Asian states. Hundreds of Chinese scholar monks gave it support.

First and most importantly, these people were responsible for creating the entire repository of Buddhist literature in China and Northeast Asia, which preserved many sutras that were lost in India. Another fact that most Chinese may not realize is that Buddhist and Sanskrit vocabulary have enriched the Chinese language by adding at least 35, 000 terms. The core of these exchanges has been ‘mutual learning of civilizations’ rather than Huntington’s thesis of the ‘clash of civilizations.’ Such information has been reiterated by Indian and Chinese leadership recently, and the ‘Silk Road Spirit’ of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusivity, mutual learning and mutual benefit advocated by President Xi Jinping accurately illustrates the point. Presently, a yearly flow of one million people between India and China brings exchange to new heights, especially in the fields of trade, tourism and education.

Secondly, Chinese and Indian studies of each other’s countries need to be enhanced, encouraged and strengthened to expand the capacity of government and private sectors in promoting better understanding. A telling figure might be the number of China experts India has produced since its independence: Some measures were taken in the wake of the border conflict, and a decade back in 2009 an act of Parliament intending to establish new central universities was passed, but still only around 20 universities in India offer Chinese language programs, of which most are only a minor certificate, including Delhi University where such courses started in 1964. Comparing the situation of Chinese learning in the U.S., as many as 227,086 students were enrolled in Chinese language courses ranging from kindergarten to grade 12, according to the National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report of 2017. It is projected that the number will rise to one million by the year 2020. These numbers, however, do not include college and university students and could reach three hundred thousand.

June 20, 2018: Nathu La Pass in Tibet welcomes 38 official pilgrims from India, the first group in this year. by Liu Dongjun/Xinhua

Although Chinese universities offering programs on Hindi have increased to about 16, that number remains paltry considering the large populations of India and China. Furthermore, student exchange between India and China is highly asymmetrical. Indian students studying in the Chinese universities (around 20,000) are mostly in the field of medicine, whereas the presence of Chinese students in Indian universities is miniscule (2,000). Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the premier institutes in the country, has never had more than 25 Chinese students at a time. The number of students on official cultural exchange programs between the two is ridiculously few—it increased from 12 during the 1990s to a present 25! Thanks to scholarships offered by the Confucius Institute, almost 500 Indian students have been able to enroll in Chinese universities for various programs. The number may increase significantly if Indian universities or educational institutes start collaborating with Chinese universities in building capacity in their respective languages. About 800 Indian universities and 150 think tanks have signed MoUs or agreements with their Chinese counterparts. The biggest hurdle, in my opinion, is lack of recognition of degrees from each other’s country. Other bottlenecks include living accommodations and acceptance of various schools’ credit systems. The removal of such bottlenecks would increase the flow of students and the number of joint researches and seminars between the two countries while at the same time enhancing mutual understanding.

Thirdly, bonding between researchers and the publishing industry is an area that has not received adequate focus. Not many books from China and vice versa are translated and disseminated in each other’s countries. Remember—translators from India, China and Central Asian countries built a huge repository of Buddhist literature in China and were responsible for changing the entire socio-cultural landscape of East Asia in ancient times. I believe that there was a specific movement and that a similar movement is required to make our contemporary relationship strong and benevolent. A memorandum on mutual translation of classics and contemporary works was signed between India and China in 2013, which I am coordinating, is a good example. The memorandum envisages translation of 25 representative Chinese books and authors into Hindi and vice-versa. The works include Confucian Classics of Four Books, Journey to the West, The Romance of Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Mansion, The Scholars and the works of modern and contemporary writers such as Ba Jin, Mao Dun, Lao She, Moyan, Jia Pingwa and A Lai. It is indeed heartening that my Hindi translations of Analects, Mencius, Great Learning and The Mean are finally available to Indian readers—the first time in recorded history of two millennia of exchanges between India and China. Through building small bridges between the Indian and Chinese publishers, we are finally reaping some fruit, and both Indian and Chinese publishers are waking up to a wide variety of writings coming across the Himalayas. A connection between the publishing industries of both countries offers an excellent dialogue mechanism, which will have a huge impact on either side. The industry brings together intellectuals and think tanks from both sides. It not only broadens the scope of the people-to-people exchange, but also creates consciousness for long-term understanding and friendship between the two peoples.

Fourthly, tourism and pilgrimages will renew the bonding and nostalgia that historically existed between the civilizations. These pilgrimages and journeys enabled the spiritual and material civilizations of Asia and elsewhere to benefit immensely from each other. A multilayered approach to building better bonding would involve expanding the establishment of sister municipalities, cities, and provinces. Today, only 14 sister cities agreements have been signed for places in India and China and seven more are likely to be signed soon, as compared with the 214 agreements on friendly states and sister cities signed between the U.S. and China. India and China share cultural heritage such as frescoes and rock-hewn Buddhist iconography of Ajanta and Ellora with Mogao, Yungang, Longmen, Dazu found in China. Buddhism presents huge scope for cooperation. For example, a Buddhist corridor could be established and further connected to other South Asian countries such as Nepal and Sri Lanka. These measures would be conducive to building a solid foundation for connectivity, trade and commerce, and, above all, robust bilateral relations.

Because both India and China are members of many multilateral forums such as BRICS and the SCO, they have already joined in many important people-to-people exchange mechanisms. For example, a comprehensive Action Plan for the Implementation of the Agreement Between the Governments of the BRICS States on Cooperation in the Field of Culture (2017-2021) was signed in 2017. The action plan envisages establishment of a BRICS alliance on art museums, national galleries, libraries, media and publishing industry. The plan encourages international cultural and art festivals, joint programs on archaeological research, cooperation across creative and commercial sectors including performing arts, visual arts, audiovisual, music, gastronomy, fashion, literature, yoga, animation and games, new media, cultural and creative merchandise development and training people to become involved in these fields. The plan is ambitious, and similar action plans need to be implemented at a bilateral level. The increased presence of media personnel and objective reporting by both sides should improve understanding.

Finally, people-to-people dialogue must be accompanied by resolution of thorny issues which include abandoning the Cold War mentality and avoiding zero-sum games. Both must negotiate mutual, equal and sustainable security as envisaged in some confidence building mechanisms. Both India and China need to be mindful of the fact that the bilateral security boundary is not just limited to the border issue but has sprawled into various other fields such as ocean travel, river water, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism and various other non-traditional security domains. Considering the environment, both need to establish new dialogue mechanisms while reinforcing or replacing the old. Both must agree that the India-China relationship is one of the most important relationships in shaping the future international order.

The author is a professor of the Centre for China and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University of India.