Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sino-Indian Relationship: a Dilemma of Mutual Ignorance

A brief survey of the leading magazines and newspapers on the Indian subcontinent often leads to an outsider confused by the excess obsession with China. The foreign affairs section sees sensationalized reports of Chinese military or economic superiority splashed across the headlines, filling pages with gloomy analysis of Indian doom in case of open competition with China. And brief chats with scholars from the subcontinent here in London illustrates that China does indeed loom large in the subconscious of the Indians and the Pakistanis, who often mentions China in the framework of subcontinental affairs.

The growing influence of China in global affairs, after years of economic and military expansion, is no longer a surprise to anyone. American, European, and East Asian media cannot live without giving their readers daily reports of China's growing threats and problems. But there is still a key difference to them and the South Asians. Compared to the floods of Americans, Japanese, Koreans now roaming China for language studies, work, and adventurous travels, Indian faces are still pretty much a rarity in the People's Republic. Their representation there even in growth terms, is a still a trickling of insignificant minority.

Perhaps nowhere in the world are Chinese and Indians more equally well-represented than on the campuses of major English-speaking universities in the US and UK, yet even here, the interaction between the two are, well, next to none. While both groups tend to stick to themselves, when outreaching across ethnic lines, they both tend to be much more fascinated first by what Americans and Europeans have to offer culturally before considering more intimate and invested interactions with fellow dwellers of the same continent.

The fact is, at the most basic level, neither the Chinese (and the East Asians as a whole) nor the Indians (South Asians as a whole) really have the obvious desire to know about each other. Both sides are perfectly fine to limit the understanding of the other to few highly distorted lines from history textbooks and news reports, supplying both sides with the sort of highly biased and inaccurate cultural disdain to prevent further mutual learning. For both, bliss seems to be having the other just be that "invisible outsider" who have to be reluctantly dealt with for studies and work.

Obviously, the mutual ignorance is dangerous, and not just for some shallow idealistic rationale of global cultural interaction. East and South Asia are now the two cultural regions with the strong economic performance outside the Euro-American one, and the economic partnership between the two has in some ways already eclipsed that of the either with Europe or America (for instance, by total value, India's annual trade with China is almost 20 billion USD more than her trade with the US). The economic relationship, combined with ongoing border disputes, Sino-Pakistani cooperation, and still-fresh memories of 1962 border skirmish, should make Sino-Indian relationship the most important for both sides.

Yet, the reality is quite different. China, by all means, behave much more like an East Asian and Southeast Asian power than a South Asian one. Its regional concerns with North Korea, Taiwan, and the South China Sea greatly outweighs the ones with India and Pakistan. India, on the other hand, have yet to play any sort of role in East Asian affairs other than a few vague trade and military exchange agreements with Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. "Both sides playing down potential conflict" much be a nice way to describe the situation, but somehow, for the outside observer, the lack of domestic interest may play a much bigger role.

So, when the Indian questions the Pakistani why the Chinese should be trusted, the sentiment is highly logical even from the Chinese perspective. After all, browsing through Chinese mass media, relations with subcontinents are rarely mentioned. The average Chinese will probably know that border disputes with India exist and that Pakistan seem to be "on our side," but they can never passionately rant on their naive political views like they do with regard to Taiwan or Japan. The fact that those East Asian issues receive much more frequent and comprehensive exposures plays a huge role in the thought processes of the common people.

To change the neglect of Sino-Indian affairs at the grassroot level, maybe a top-down focus on cultural exchange must be implemented. Back few thousand years ago, the passage of Buddhism from India to the Chinese royal family served as a cultural conduit. There is nothing that prevent similar exchange today. Whether it be movies, food, or tourism, specialized programs for bilateral cultural understanding ought to be introduced so that that exclusive interest of the elites for "strategic partnership" can be solidly passed down to the common people in both countries in the form of cultural goodwill.


  1. Just saw this-- thought I'd post a link to a relevant intiative co-founded by a friend of mine (Chinese who went to an Ivy and then worked in India for 2 years):   http://inchincloser.com/

  2. wow, sounds really interesting...do these guys hire in India now?
    I would not mind working in a place this for a few years...
    Who should I contact?