India And China: A Text in the Time Of COVID-19

India And China: A Text in the Time Of COVID-19
While China and India have struggled to cope with COVID-19, their relations have taken a hit due to issues such as FDI rules and pharmaceuticals.

Amb Nirupama Rao:

Nirupama Rao is a 1973 batch Indian Foreign Service Officer. In July 2009, she became the second woman(after Chokila Iyer) to hold the post of India's Foreign Secretary, the head of the Indian Foreign Service. In her career she served in several capacities including, Minister of Press, Information and Culture in washington DC, Deputy Chief of Mission in Moscow, stints in the MEA as Joint Secretary, east Asia and External Publicity, the latter position making her the first woman spokesperson of the MEA, Chief of Personnel, Ambassador to Peru and China, and High Commissioner to Sri lanka. A leading thought influencer in the field of geopolitics, she is closely associated with Synergia Foundation.

Civilizational bonds between China and India:

While there would be ups and downs in geopolitics, regional and global competition between nations, there are certain threads which bind them together.  India and China, two of the world’s ancient civilisations, have always shared a cultural bonding since the days when both were the fountainhead of civilisation. These civlisational threads were emphasised by no less a person than Rabindranath Tagore who was equally revered in China. The joint celebration of the birthday of this great poet, artists, novelist and musician-– a true Renaissance man – both in India and China with equal reverence is a manifestation of such bonds.

When Rabindranath Tagore came to China in 1924, he asked: “Where is the difference between China and India?” In Beijing, where “an almost inconceivable crowd” turned up to greet him at the station, he was felicitated by a gathering of scholars led by Liang Qichao who spoke of Indians and Chinese as brothers, anticipating the slogan of the fifties, but with much more intellectual depth and feeling. In Liang’s words, “We are brothers, India is our elder brother and we are the younger. This is not only an expression of courtesy. We have got ample proof of that statement in history… Indians did not covet anything from China. They gave us the sadhana (contemplation, meditation and focus) of freedom and maitri (friendship). ..Rabindranath has come to us from the country of our elder brother.” Tagore responded to these words by saying that India felt a “very great kinship with China”, sraddha as he called it. That sraddha, which translates as implying mutual respect, awareness and mutual kinship.  

Tagore’s ideal was the universal human spirit linked by reason and rationality and rising above the narrow confines of nationalism. Today, as very corner of the world is ravaged by a virus that seeks every human being out with a vengeance, the world needs to be reminded of the need for rationality, for the respect of universality that rises above the narrow confines of cartographic borders. 

The Challenges of the Pandemic

The world is on edge. It is on the brink of what could be a cataclysm that is both societal and economic, that tests human resilience. And yet, nations act as if it is business as usual, continuing to pursue outstanding differences, unresolved problems, old grievances, and rivalries in the race towards global leadership or regional supremacy.  Insularity, the chase of narrow ambition, jockeying for spheres of influence, instead of interdependence - seem to be the preferred route. 

The speed with which the disaster, the anthropological threat (the definition coined by French President Emmanuel Macron recently) that is COVID-19,  has overwhelmed all nations and it  should induce much greater sobriety in the way nations think. Sadly, there is a game of global finger-pointing that is going on, and countries like the United States and China, the leading powers, have also succumbed to this exercise infusing the current situation with even greater complexity. The grammar of so-called diplomatic language has descended into depths that reduce it to street insults. This only compounds the tragedy because “grown-up nations are supposed to behave like grown-ups.”  Where there should be convergence, there is divergence and dissatisfaction. Populism, protectionism and the retreat to isolationism is the natural backlash from the dislocation. Many worlds are colliding. 

What is diplomacy without a strategy, without a vision? And a vision must be defined by the goals we plan for the future. We have to think about a future when we chart a vision and plan a strategy. What is the future we want? It is not about kicking the can down the road. Two to three years from now, what is the world we want to see?

The India China Equation

India and China have a complex relationship. Both are  Asian giants, but with an irksome frequency, their interaction is fraught with tugs and pulls, with repetitive suspicion, with issues that have defied resolution despite all the positive outcomes that capture media headlines when our leaders meet, informally or formally. 2020, commemorates seventy years of the diplomatic relations between the two countries. While a pandemic rages, there is news that even at times as such, we engage in confrontations along our shared borders.

New generations of young Indians and Chinese, have grown up on a diet of strong nationalism, quite different from the vision of Tagore, and despite the processes of globalization that like a tide, have lifted up boats in both nations. Historically both nations are not known as that practiced hegemony, or indulged in armed conquest, rather we purveyors of civilizational values, or peaceful commerce, and rich cultural traditions. But looking back on the last seventy years, both are seemingly intent on charting a course more in line with habits and practices imported from the Western playbook, the precepts of Westphalia seemed to override the principles of equality and mutual benefit, and the peaceful coexistence of all beings that the great Sakyamuni preached two thousand five hundred years ago. 

Will the pandemic teach us lessons? The India and China relationship, despite their differences, is too important to squander. The issues that should determine our future are questions of peace, not conflict. Both have to avoid “the Thucydides Trap,” although in the present context it has not been applied precisely; the war between Athens and Sparta cannot be a paradigm for a 21st century Asia. 

The May Fourth Movement was an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement which grew out of student protests in Beijing on 4 May 1919.. The spirit of the young men and women of China who led that movement is remembered to this day, their quest for scientific enquiry, modernization, development, freedom from bondage and equality for all. The present generation too  must be guided by that spirit, of constructive cooperation rather than mutually wasting and narrow definitions of interest. 

The Future of China-India Relationship

First and foremost, both nations have to ensure that there are self-correcting mechanisms that are built into our relationship that will prevent it from becoming prey to self-destructive threats of conflict. The trade and investment relationship built over the last two decades must serve the cause of the peoples, not just mercantilist interests. The aspirational youths of both countries must not be denied livelihoods, skill enhancement, access to the fruits of technological advancement and progress. Public health and education must become the new frontiers of cooperation. Cooperation in scientific research, new technologies that have mass application and benefits including in urban development and mass transportation, environment protection and pollution control, climate change and renewable resources, bio-tech, pharmaceuticals, electronics and communications should form part of our bilateral relationship.  

100 global leaders and opinion makers have advocated the absolute need for a COVID-19 vaccine which when developed would be available to all -patent-free, produced at scale and made available at no cost to people everywhere. This ‘people’s vaccine’ should be a common goal towards which both countries must pool scientific talents, resources both human and material. There is also a need to institute an impartial inquiry into the origins of the pandemic so that its cause and spread can be unravelled and fool proof protocols can be developed.

As the historian Margaret Macmillan said recently, the river of history is changing direction and the need of the hour is moral leadership.  Multilateralism that eschews hegemony, needs strengthening and preservation. The world needs caravans of fellow-pilgrims and team players, not lone rangers. The big and strong cannot bully the small and weak. Organizations like the WHO cannot be dismissed just because its work during the pandemic could have been better. WHO is relevant to come up with sensible strategies to combat the pandemic, and to develop global protocols for mitigation, treatment and prevention of the disease as also against future biological threats.   

The future should be built on a balanced partnership between India and China, as mutually responsible countries, that work for a world order that is inclusive, open, compassionate, development-oriented and respects diversity and the rule of international law. Both must build middle ground in a polarized world and stress the core values as humanity. It could perhaps be the start of a Himalayan Consensus between India and China that can apply for the world.

Author: Nirupama Rao, former Foreign Secretary of India, and retired Ambassador of India to China and the United States.