China and India: Asia’s two mismatched giants are about to meet, and the omens aren't looking good

Sometimes it looks as if China is trying to tie India up in knots

Peter Popham
Friday 24 April 2015 17:51
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When the Indian PM Narendra Modi visits China next month, President Xi Jinping is expected to take him to Wild Goose Pagoda in the ancient city of Xian, from where the Chinese monk Xuan Zang travelled to India in the 7th century AD in search of wisdom, in the form of Buddhist sutras.

It will be a polite way to acknowledge the profound cultural ties between the world’s two biggest nations – and the fact that, while China may have invented paper and gunpowder, it didn’t invent Buddhism. It had to import it.

The transmission of the religion to China was actually far from smooth. When Emperor Wu of Liang showed the Indian sage Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of the Zen sect, around the temples he had built and asked him hopefully how much merit he had thereby accumulated, the Indian replied, “No merit, none at all.”

The Emperor, growing suspicious, then asked him, “What is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism?” “Vast emptiness,” said Bodhidharma. “Who do you think you are?” Wu demanded irately. “I have no idea,” replied the sage.

The encounter of Xi and Modi may go better than that, but the auguries are not great. When Xi came to India last September, Modi paid him the usual state visit courtesies and also showed him around his home state of Gujarat. But the friendly mood was decisively shattered when more than 200 Chinese soldiers barrelled into Indian-held territory in the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh with cranes and bulldozers and set about building a road.

They only retreated after Indian troops confronted them. It was one of hundreds of Chinese incursions that occur every year along the disputed border. And just to drive home the point that this is an unresolved issue, they make sure to schedule one such stunt before or even during high-profile bilateral visits. Expect more high altitude fireworks soon.

The relationship between India and China is, in other words, not great. With their vast size and populations larger than one billion each, we may tend to think of them as roughly equal in other ways, but China’s economy is four times larger than India’s and the benefits of growth have been spread over a far larger segment of its population.

In other respects, however, especially with regard to political and intellectual freedom, India is streets ahead of China, which has just confirmed, with the oppressive election law it imposed on Hong Kong this week, that it has no intention of tolerating democracy in any corner of the country.

Fifty-five years ago Tibet went under the Maoist steamroller. It was India that picked up the pieces, in the form of the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of other refugees, taken without hesitation to Mother India’s bosom and given new homes there. The border war of 1962 can be seen as Mao’s riposte to Nehru’s act of mercy towards Tibet, and the fact that the issues left dangling at the end of the conflict are unresolved more than half a century later gives a good sense of how limited, to date, has been the fraternal co-operation between the giant neighbours. In addition to the Ladakh issue there is one entire Indian state, Arunachal Pradesh, in the north-east of the country, that China considers to be part of (Chinese-owned) Tibet.

And while, during Modi’s upcoming visit, the two leaders will doubtless try to paper over the cracks with rather modest agreements on economic co-operation, more tensions are arising all the time. Earlier this month, for example, China announced ambitious plans to build a major new road over the Himalayas to its long-standing ally, Pakistan. It also revealed that it plans to dig a tunnel under Mount Everest to Nepal, a landlocked country which has long been politically and economically dependent on India.

Sometimes it looks as if China, bringing its skills in infrastructure building to nations all over the region, is trying to tie India up in knots, establishing a string of friendly sea ports from Burma to Pakistan by way of Sri Lanka and the Maldives as a way of securing its route to the Gulf states.

But despite their industrial and financial muscle, the Chinese don’t have it all their own way. Modi has yet to demonstrate that he can work magic on India’s domestic economy, but he has proved far more energetic and agile than expected on the international stage.

If China brings money and muscle, India’s approach is more finessed. Modi snubbed the Maldives, despite the two countries’ long relationship, after the government’s crackdown on democracy and the persecution of former President Mohamed Nasheed. China aims to make the South China Sea a Chinese lake; Modi makes friends easily when he stands up for the right of Vietnam to defend its territorial waters. As a Hindu nationalist he has no hesitation about strengthening ties with Mauritius, which has a majority Indian population, and where he was guest of honour at independence celebrations recently.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, simply dropped into his lap. China became President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s new best friend when it showed no interest at all in condemning the massacres that accompanied the end of the war against the Tamil Tigers; it went on to build motorways and harbours and an international airport.

But now Rajapaksa has been thrown out and it was no surprise when his successor, Maithripala Sirisena, chose to make Delhi his first port of call after his election. As China grows more assertive, India is quietly rediscovering its diplomatic heft.

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