The lack of strategic consensus has made progress in the India-China bilateral relationship elusive. A strategic consensus between India and China would have enabled them to arrive at a political arrangement, where neither of them would be involved in any balance of power politics against each other, and support each other when crucial common interests are threatened. The reason for this lack, is the use of narrow geopolitical constructs on both sides to describe the bilateral relationship, which reduces the bilateral interactions, to a ‘competition versus cooperation’ dichotomy. It leads to festering mutual mistrust because of the perception that the other relies on strategic competitors (the US in India’s case and Pakistan in China’s) to reap geo-political gains. Though both countries attempt to narrow these irritants at high-level meetings of the top leaders (Wuhan and Chennai Informal Summits), the bilateral tensions continue reach new heights.
While various studies have thrown some light on these schisms, there are fundamental contradictions between the two countries at the philosophical level, which makes the scope for arriving at a strategic consensus limited. These contradictions limit each country’s understanding of the actions of the other. As a result, periodic tensions rise if any one country attempts to assert their national interests that could be considered threatening to the othercountry, be it closer relationship between India and the US or the Chinese foray into South Asia. Relations remain stable only as long as each side chooses to mute their apprehensions vis-a-vis the other. Even though they recognise that there are policy inadequacies bedeviling the relationship, they are unable to shed these inherent tendencies to let geopolitical concerns dominate the relationship.
India and China’s philosophical traditions have influenced their perception of each other in contrasting ways. In Ancient China, religion and supernatural myths played a significant role. For instance, the rulers of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.E) used oracle bones for ‘divination rituals’ to predict auspiciousness for starting wars and travel. They also derived their legitimacy to rule by invoking their special ability to seek guidance from the ‘Supreme God’ (Shangdi), whom they believed communicated to them from the souls of their Shang ancestors. When Zhou rulers defeated the Shangs, they replaced the idea of “God” (Di) with “Heaven” (Tian) - the more philosophical ‘Mandate of Heaven’. Zhou rulers developed a more cosmological divination text called the “Changes of Zhou” (Zhouyi). Zhouyi later added several philosophical commentaries and the combined text was called the “Book of Changes” (Yijing). The Chinese consider Yijing (125 BCE) to be the foundational text in their philosophical tradition.
The Chinese philosophical tradition underwent fundamental transformation when Zhou rule (1046-256 BCE) began to collapse. The weakening of central control and subsequent fragmentation into several warring states led to dramatic societal and military upheavals in China. Major schools of thought including Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism and Mohism, Yin-Yang schools of thought emerged during this period, each propagating their own solutions to the political chaosand incessant wars during the Spring and Autumn period. These differing intellectual traditions collectively transformed the Chinese belief and the philosophical tradition from being supernatural and myth-based to philosophical enquiry on humanism and ethics. In order words, the organisation and governance of the society no longer depended on maintenance of religious rituals or influence. It became confined mostly to individual’s belief and practices. The Chinese believe this transition to be progressive and rational as they had successfully transitioned from myth-based to humanistic and ethics-based philosophy.
Contrary to China, the Indian tradition transitioned from the Vedic philosophy to various philosophical traditions between 6th and 2nd century BC, resulting in both orthodox and heterodox schools of Indian philosophy. However, in the latter stages (from 400 AD), the tide turned towards the use of allegorical stories (Puranas) and devotional tradition embodied in the Bhakti movement. The penchant for philosophical emphasis on meta-physical aspects of human life and the organisation of society by religious duties made the Chinese view the Indian tradition to be underdeveloped. It made them believe that India has neglected the written recording of historical knowledge and the development of an egalitarian society. Though Indian philosophy contains heterodox views and materialism in some traditions, the Chinese seem to view that the dominant dissemination of Indian thought is via myth and religious rituals. This perception has made them to conceive the Indian society as backward. While the Chinese have historically shown fascination for certain aspects of Indian rituals that might reveal the secrets of immortality and elements of nature (interest in Buddhism), the Chinese state remains reluctant to consider India as an equal power. Such an understanding of Indian thought has led them to be unyielding to the Indian world view and in turn less accommodative.
The West and its Influence on Modern China
Not surprisingly, the Chinese then understand power by assessing civilisational continuity, i.e., strength of the civilisation to sustain over decay and domination from others. For this reason, they have to maintain the notion that the Chinese civilisation is continuous, and generate scholarship that support this particular world-view. Only the Western powers were able to force China to treat them as equals. The ability of the Western scientific and technological dominance in successfully colonizing parts of China and the subsequent collapse of the Qing dynasty (1911) created major political and societal upheavals in China. The Chinese questioned the resilience of the traditional culture, which resulted in the anti-imperialist movement called the May 4th in 1919, which (later laid the foundation for the Chinese communism) attacked traditional Confucian values and advocated modernity. The reformers and their successors rejected the Chinese traditional culture in favour of learning scientific knowledge and developing technology. They believed that a country’s power would be influenced by its scientific and technological progress.
However, such social movements, including the communist revolution failed to dilute the Chinese elite perceptions about civilisational strength being an important marker for a country’s status. As a result, China began to adjust its view on power and strength. It saw that for a country to be powerful, it needed both civilisational and material power, thus embarking on its economic and military reforms.
Differences between Indian and Chinese Perceptions
The Chinese elite after achieving economic success assess India to be weak, both in civilizational and material terms. It expects India to act its lesser stature and in turn, often use many diplomatic/military tactics and strategies to compel India to understand the limitations of its strength. For instance, the Chinese state believes that if certain Indian actions create an adverse impact on China, then the Chinese would have to take preemptive actions that is costly for India, to make India reassess its strength.
India, on the other hand, have a very different understanding of power in the international system. The Indian elite in its foreign policy have incorporated certain aspects of Indian philosophy to counter the lack in material power-based equations (example Vasudeva Kutumbukam). The Indian elite while calculating power in its foreign policy, believe the material conditions to be dynamic, and do not privilege it as the only factor. India does believe that its low material conditions leads to asymmetric power equations between countries, and hence acknowledge its developing economy status in the world. But, when assessing its power in Asia, it believes that the civilisational impact on ideas/beliefs (spread of Indic influence on East and Southeast Asia) in the region is significant, thus generating influence in the region. Therefore, in India’s view, its power does not entirely depend on material conditions, as long as it can exert influence through civilisational means in a substantial manner. For instance, the Indian foreign policy envisions wherever the Indian civilisation had influenced cultures as its sphere of influence, even if the current economic engagement is low (for example, Southeast Asia).
In other words, India calculates power not only by material conditions but also the way civilisations influence others. Thus, Indian elite in any form does not conceive it to be lesser than China, and in their minds, better equipped than China to influence any emerging order. They scoff at the Chinese attempt to set materialism as the priority (opposition to BRI) often deriding them for their lack of ideational characteristics in their quest for pragmatism. Even
though Confucianism is finding political favour with the current Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is attempting promote it through international diplomacy, India considers it as a political strategy and propaganda to strengthen the Chinese image. Though India credits the Chinese system in alleviating poverty, it places its democratic system on a higher pedestal for ensuring socio-political rights for its citizens. Moreover, India finds the Chinese claim of civilisational superiority unacceptable as they were students of Indian philosophy through Buddhism.
Therefore, China expects India to act according to its weaker status due to its material inadequacy and negotiate with China accordingly to improve trade and investment in order to raise living conditions in India. India on the other hand wants China to shed its Sino-centric thinking as India has already civilisationally dominated China, thus proved its strength/ superiority much earlier. The contradictory philosophical understanding of power, strength, and weakness has put India and China at crossroads, rendering them unable to negotiate an overarching strategic consensus. The recent Wuhan and Chennai consensus attempted to address these issues by bringing in broader links between India and China. However, as long as they are reluctant to resolve these contradictions, they can only manage perceptions and tensions.
(Dr M. S. Prathibha is an Associate Fellow in the East Asia Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. She works largely with Mandarin sources for her research work on PLA Rocket Forces, Nuclear Policy and China’s Foreign and Security Policy. Views expressed are personal.)