SINOGRAPH China losing cultural race with India
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - It is not about the present, where the power plays are and will for the next few years be dominated by the United States - it is about the future, stretching into the second half of the century and beyond.
Whether as a booming economy or a failed state, India will be a major protagonist in the region, as will be China, whatever its future. The relationship between the governments of these two countries, sitting on some 40% of the world population with over 2.5 billion people, is then crucial. The basis of that future, as
nations with long histories like China and India know, is being built now.
Because of all of this and because of two issues in particular, the importance of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to India from May 20 can hardly be overestimated.
Li has just started his tenure as prime minister, and this is his first important foreign trip. This could mark a new beginning for bilateral ties, but it is hard to imagine a very close relationship between the two and there is no more talk of “ChIndia”, as there was a decade ago.
The second reason this visit is significant is a recent flare up of controversies over border intrusions in the disputed territory of Ladakh. Some in the Indian press have accused the People's Liberation Army of escalating tensions locally and of acting at the direct behest of Beijing. This would suggest a Chinese plot to encroach on Indian land and to force New Delhi to cave before Chinese territorial requests in a pattern similar to what seemed to occur in the South China Sea with Vietnam and the Philippines or with Japan over the Senkaku.
It is hard to judge from Beijing how much real political traction these accusations have in India, a vibrant democracy with healthy and lively debate. Certainly, the Indian government has tried to put out the fire over the border intrusions and put a positive spin on bilateral ties. Still, this issue is the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Bilateral trade, though growing fast, is also the cause of sore feelings.
Indians complain that trade is badly skewed in the ratio of China's exports to India's manufactured goods and India's exports to China's mainly raw materials. The end result, besides the money made here or there, is that Indian industry gets squeezed by Chinese industry.
Imports in software and healthcare - areas where Indians are equal if not superior to the Chinese - are bitterly protected by Beijing, keen on grooming its national edge. Some in New Delhi complain that if this trend is not stemmed, India could end up being a new kind of Africa for Beijing.
Perhaps these are exaggerations, but again they grow in a deep terrain. Indians are not over the fact that they were beaten in the 1962 war, when China was facing its worst historical moment (just coming out of the massive famine of the Great Leap Forward) and fighting in its most difficult area (Tibet, home of the 1959 anti-Beijing uprising).
This experience left many Chinese thinking that India is not and will not be a major player after all, despite the size of its population. That view of history is confirmed when a visiting Chinese scholar or student wanders into the Indian slums, where migrants from the countryside live as if without a future, resigned to their fate, surrounded by garbage and without any clothes or dignity.
This is in stark contrast with the tightly controlled Chinese cities or the mindset of Chinese farmers, who are always thinking and scheming about new ways to make money.
Even as a military threat, India is not taken very seriously. Some Chinese generals point out that despite the Indian nuclear arsenal, one-third of Indian territory is under threat by neo-Maoist guerrillas, and there are active Muslim fundamentalists and Hindu radicals eager to kill each other and everybody in the middle.
From this point of view, India seems on the verge of collapse, not about to overtake China as the new booming economy. Indian democracy then seems a thin veneer covering a deeper feudalistic society, where one family, the Nehru-Gandhis, has dominated politics for over a century.
Moreover, in large states, votes are bought and sold by large traders who resemble mafia bosses rather than political dealers. The notorious clout of Chinese princelings pales in comparison to this.
These blunt considerations leave many proud Indians feeling humiliated. All of this also fails to account for the deeper fabric of Indian society. India persists as a state and its economy booms despite the riots, the protests, the guerrillas, and the poor people without dignity.
In many crucial scientific areas, research is booming, and the work is as good as or better than in China, without the massive state support enjoyed in recent years by Chinese researchers. That is, India is made of a stronger fiber than the casual Chinese eye perceives.
Moreover, despite all the failings of India's cumbersome and at times corrupt democracy, the public debate is extremely lively and it enlivens the whole Indian society. Last but not least, Indian was colonized by the British for 300 years, its upper class speaks English better than the English, and the political institutions are British, while its own traditions from dress to religion are still there.
Both these elements - the internationalization of communication and political norms along with the preservation of old culture - give India a special place of communality and interest in the Western world.
China was never colonized by Western powers, few of its leaders speak decent English, and its norms are Leninist in theory, but in reality hark back to imperial times. Yet, its traditions have been shattered.
Nobody wears the traditional dress, as they do in India, and nobody remembers the traditions for funerals, weddings, birthdays, et cetera. The very fabric of society has been totally Westernized, but the political trappings are similar to old imperial China. This makes China very hard to understand and digest in the Western world, where one can more easily tolerate the opposite, like in India.
This big picture is the backdrop for the present role of India in Asia, the area to which America decided to pivot its foreign policy. No matter how one reads the US pivot to Asia - if as general attention to the booming region or as a preemptive encirclement of China - India is in any case a crucial element.
India and China were two worlds apart before modernity. Without airplanes, asphalt roads, and railways, the Himalayas were a huge barrier between the two worlds. However, both Chinese incorporation of Tibet, for centuries a kind of buffer between the two civilizations, and the development of modern transportation have made China and India close neighbors, as they never were before.
This and the huge Indian population, with the potential of its market, make China and India natural counterbalances for each other in the region. The management, or containment, of India relies on China, and vice versa. As China is the country at present ahead in the economic and political race, it cannot afford to have less than idyllic ties with India, lest it risk being pressed and cornered by New Delhi.
The potential role of India in an anti-Chinese alliance is no mystery.
"The timing of this [Chinese] intrusion points to a specific motive. It comes just weeks before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Japan and is a warning against India expressing support to Japan. The backdrop is the steadily escalating tension between China and Japan over the Senkaku [Diaoyu] Islands," wrote Jayadeva Ranade, member of the National Security Advisory Board, about the recent border tension.
The result, in this situation, could be that Japan, Vietnam, Australia, India, and the US form a general alliance against China. The other countries will fall in line with the alliance or stay neutral. None so far seems eager to side with China. This may be just a game for war theorists, or it could turn into reality, depending on many issues. One important element is how China fosters its ties with India.
Here a prickly issue is the 4,057-kilometer border between the two states. They will not go to war any time soon, or possibly ever, over the border, but China more than India needs to improve the situation. After all, in 1962 China occupied part of the now disputed land, but then it withdrew voluntarily.
Why 50 years later would China want to reoccupy land it has already given up? On the other hand, India cannot assume that because China withdrew 50 years ago, this land belongs to New Delhi and it is excluded from any negotiations.
These are details that can be solved only in light of the broad, long-term regional considerations. This is the very difficult task of Li Keqiang in the next few days in India.