We need our own perspective on China

Reuters file photo

At a time when fresh momentum is being injected into the complex India-China relations, it augurs well that Manipal University has started a dedicated China Study Centre.

India’s engagement with China is not new. It is rooted in the civilizational and cultural intercourse spanning over 2000 years, and perhaps even prior to the advent of Buddhism. In modern times, the two fought against colonialism and imperialism and were born contemporaneously, India in 1947 and China two years later in 1949.

India’s engagement with China, however, started, much before the country became independent. Rabindranath Tagore, during his two visits to China in 1924 and 1926 at the invitation of Chinese scholars, had espoused the rightful cause of China in his writings. He continues to be one of the few world figures who is revered and respected in China.

When the Chinese communist revolution was taking shape, M N Roy of Communist International was deputed by no less than the great Communist leader Vladimir Lenin himself to advise Chinese Communist leaders. When the Sino-Japanese war broke out in the mid-1930s, Jawaharlal Nehru deputed a medical mission to China that included among others the legendary medical doctor Dwarkanath Kotnis.

A grateful China continued to maintain relationship with the Kotnis family even after the passing away of his wife, Guo Qinglan. It was only the border war of 1962 that disrupted the relationship between the two countries, until 1976, when the diplomatic relationship was normalised.

A persistent security dilemma and strategic distrust, however, impedes the full potential of economic engagement between the two countries. It is against this backdrop that there is a  necessity to know each other better, to deepen and strengthen mutual understanding.

For a fairly long time, the narrative in India-China ties was coloured by Western discourse and media reports, and continues to be so even today. While Western scholarship on China certainly has its merit, it certainly lacks an Indian perspective. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that at times, Western writings and reports are motivated to put one against the other. Due to our neglect of the study of China, we cannot think of out of the (Western) box to address issues in bilateral relations.

Setting up of centres of Chinese studies and scholar and cultural exchanges have to an extent corrected misperception about each other. The first major initiative to establish a China centre was the China Bhavan at Tagore’s Shantiniketan. The intellectual resources there are predominantly on cultural and civilisational relations between the two countries and not so much on economic, developmental, security, strategic and science aspects.

Realising the need for a better understanding of China, Jawaharlal Nehru established a dedicated department of Chinese and Japanese study at Delhi University in 1963-64, immediately after the 1962 war. VP Dutt, who studied at Stanford and Beijing universities and was one of the earliest Indian scholars on China, established and nurtured the Department of Chinese Studies.

Later, leading Sinologists like Manoranjan Mohanty joined the department and helped in augmenting the intellectual resources and mentored scholars and students. Realising the necessity to have a comprehensive understanding of China, course curriculum touching all aspects of China — its history, polity, economy, military and Mao Zedong’s thought — was developed. Some of the students who passed out of the department subsequently joined the foreign service and turned out to be successful diploma.

The China Study Centre at Manipal University should focus on cutting-edge research on all aspects of China, particularly on its military, Communist Party, ideology, leadership, cyberwarfare, strategic doctrine, economy, agriculture, information and communication technology, foreign policy, India-China relations.

The teaching and learning of the Chinese language should be a priority. There should be dedicated units to monitor the Chinese media, both in Chinese and English, and analyse its contents. It should sign agreements with Chinese universities and institutes and also Taiwanese universities and think-tanks for exchange of scholars and joint organisation of conferences and seminars. Joint research and collaborations should be encouraged to address areas such as trade deficit, trust deficit and even knowledge deficit.

India-China ties will continue to be delicate and sensitive. Given that the relationship between the two countries has entered a new phase and there is a recognition that it cannot be reversed, that the economies of the two countries are getting intertwined, it is only pragmatic to find synergy between the two economies.

Oneupmanship will not help. The relationship between the two counties will veer around what former prime minister Manmohan Singh once said while speaking at the Party School in China, “cooperation, coordination and competition”. The thrust of research at the China Study Centre should be on these three.

(The writer was formerly a senior fellow with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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We need our own perspective on China

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