A Historical Perspective of India-China Relations: The Hope for Modern Times

By Purba Chatterjee.

Presentation given July 31st, 2021 at the symposium “China’s Rise: Its Meaning to Humanity’s Strivings” as a part of the Saturday Free School and Church of the Advocate’s Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Communist Party of China


The historical ties between India and China must be reckoned not in decades or centuries, but in thousands of years. Rahul Sankrityayan, one of India’s greatest scholars, has written extensively on the ancient civilizational belt from Eqypt to China that these two great countries of Asia were a part of. The southern Silk Road, which forged economic ties between them also served as an avenue for the exchange of ideas and philosophies. Most significant of these was the spread of Buddhism from India to China and other parts of East Asia in the 1st century AD. This was an age of spirited collaboration, seeking to reach a new synthesis of Indian and Chinese thought, leaving its mark directly or indirectly on the culture and economic development of all parts of Asia. Although forged by Buddhism, the civilizational ties between India and China went far beyond religion. Indian influences in Chinese art and literature in the 4th and 5th centuries tells us that China, though as culturally advanced, was willing to learn from Indian traditions. They met as equals, two great and ancient peoples devoted to the cause of universal truth and the fulfilment of human destiny. For a millennium they coexisted without conflict, which points beyond the difficult terrain that separated them, towards an essential commitment to peace that is the mark of great civilizations.

These cultural ties diminished with the decline of Buddhism and deteriorated further with the subsequent colonization of Asia by Europe. The early 20th century however saw a resurgence of an Asian identity, rooted in the anti-colonial movements of Asia and Africa. The devastation caused by the two world wars, fought primarily for imperial control over colonies, exposed the moral bankruptcy of western political theories. The anti-colonial movement grew out of the struggle for political independence and self-determination of colored humanity. In each country, it strove to uplift the spiritual and material realities of the working masses and to develop a new national consciousness based on civilizational roots. It also sought for principled unity among Asians and Africans against the inhumane white supremacist world order which had plunged the colored world into poverty and war.

It was in the context of this great movement of movements that the bond of friendship and solidarity  between India and China was rejuvenated. Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet and philosopher, was the living embodiment of this reawakening. He recognized the common humanity of the Indian and Chinese people. On his visit to China in 1924, he carried with him the message of peace and brotherhood. He proclaimed his belief in the ideal of a united Asia resisting the self-seeking materialism of the West through the moral force of love and spirituality. At a time when the conflict of traditional values with modernity was at the forefront of the national consciousness in both countries, he rejected the identification of modernity with westernization. Pointing towards the emphasis on universal truth and love in ancient Chinese and Indian philosophy, he asserted, “All true things are ever modern and can never become obsolete”.  He equated civilization not with the mechanical progress of the West, but with dharma, or the moral imperative which “binds humanity and leads to the best possible welfare”, that was the legacy of the East. 

Rabindranath Tagore with Chinese scholars at Tsinghua University in Beijing, 1924 (Credit: Xinhua)

The republic of India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong came into being within a year of each other. Nehru recognized the commonality of the Indian and Chinese struggle as free nations: both poor countries with large and predominantly agrarian populations, in need of rapid industrialization and agricultural reforms to raise the standard of living. He extended the hand of friendship to China, firmly believing that their unity was key to the revival of Asia, and the ushering in of an era of peace after the ravages of war and two centuries of colonial oppression. This was the vision of the Asian Relations Conference conceived by Nehru in 1946, and organized in India in March 1947.

As early as April 1950, India established formal diplomatic relations with the New People’s Republic of China. India’s ambassador to New China, K.M. Panikkar, recorded his impression of the Central People’s Government as being run by “men and women who were efficient and honest, who knew their minds and were prepared to put their best into the service of the State”. In his talks with Mao, the latter acknowledged the common traditions of the two countries, and also their common struggle to recover freedom from foreign aggression. It was agreed upon by both parties that this freedom was threatened by the entrenchment of European economic power in Asia, and that India and China needed to develop their own resources in response. Panikkar described the new regime as committed to the upliftment of the working masses, with great emphasis laid on education and village reforms but also on bringing beauty, recreation, and a new spirit into the lives of common people. 

Nehru’s commitment to principled unity with China was reflected in his prioritizing the legitimate admission of the PRC into the United Nations, over the question of India’s own membership. It was he who brought China to the Bandung conference on Afro-Asian unity in April 1955. The Bandung conference upheld the right of the colored world to determine their own political and economic destinies and resolved to lift the globally deprived from poverty and illiteracy. It adopted a resolution of mutual respect and cooperation building on Panchsheel, the five principles of peaceful coexistence laid out by India and China in 1954. The Bandung spirit was the very spirit of our anti-colonial struggle, and its faith in the agency of the darker masses of humanity to create a new world free from oppression and war.

Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru at the Bandung Conference in 1955 (Credit: UPI)

The anti-colonial movement has however remained unfinished due to the counter revolution of western imperialism. Today, the rewriting of world history to exclude Africa and diminish Asia, coupled with neocolonial exploitation and war, has once again plunged us into economic, cultural and intellectual servitude to the west. In these times of deep ideological confusion, the narrative of India-China relations is dictated, not by the thousand years of friendship and peaceful coexistence, but by their recent history of conflicts which are the troubled inheritances of a post-colonial world. Western propaganda, with the self-serving interest of maintaining status-quo, fans the flame of anti-China sentiments. China is authoritarian, they say, and India must defend its democracy lest it go the same way. What is sad is that some Indian intellectuals, still to recover from their colonial training, have often echoed this western hysteria about a rising Chinese threat. This is why, today when President Xi Jinping is talking about reviving the Bandung spirit and rebuilding the civilizational and economic ties of the Silk Road through the Belt and Road Initiative, India has hesitated to answer his call. Instead, she has partnered with U.S.A, Australia and Japan through the Quad alliance, countries she has very little in common with historically and culturally.

Tagore has said “The most memorable fact of human history is that of a path-opening, not for the clearing  of a passage for machines or machine-guns, but for helping  the realization by races of their affinity of minds, their mutual obligations of a common humanity.” Such a path was created between the Indian and Chinese people two thousand years ago, when they met as noble friends to exchange the best of their knowledge and cultural accomplishments. In stark contrast, the West came to us in war, not to learn and assimilate, but to subjugate and exploit, and to establish their dominance and superiority over the colored world. Those Indians that see in China a threat, and in the West a principled ally, would do well to remember the evidence of history. India should strengthen its commitment to regional peace and collaboration through a closer engagement with the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN. The ASEAN countries are invested in good relations with both India and China, and unlike India’s partners in the Quad alliance, seek not to contain China but to maintain a balance of powers in the Indo-Pacific, in the interest of fruitful economic and cultural cooperation and the maintenance of peace.

We must remember that while India and China might have adopted different political ideologies for the fulfilment of their respective national destinies, the Indian and Chinese people are bound by the common humanity of their civilizational histories, a bond that is older and stronger than nationalism. The greatest threat to democracy is not authoritarianism, but the brutality of poverty. The great task before India today is to raise the masses of poor that make up most of its population into lives of dignity and fulfilment. In this, we have much to learn from China’s remarkable success in extreme poverty alleviation through state action. We must also recognize in the Chinese national project the fundamental hope of our own freedom struggle, that a people united  can transform society and make essential contributions to the progress of humanity as a whole.

Mother India | 1935. Amrita Sher-Gil. Oil on canvas. © ngma.delhi@gmail.com

Today the west is in the thralls of a deep political and economic crisis, and a viable alternative to the western world order is being presented by an economically and technologically ascending China. This is a world historic moment ripe with possibilities and India must decide which side she stands on. We must reflect on the past and draw deep from the well of history, so that through principled unity India and China can once again revitalize Asia both materially and culturally. Together, they are home to a third of the world’s youth, a storehouse of energy and potential waiting to be unleashed, 600 million young minds waiting to be lifted into the realm of true freedom. In them, and in young people everywhere rests the future of mankind. It is the work of our times to channel their creativity, idealism and innate goodness into the service of humanity, through an inspired synthesis of our ancient wisdom with the spirit of modern times. We must instill in them the firm belief that that true strength lies not in mechanical force and self-assertion but in the spirit of struggle and sacrifice for peace, and that true freedom is to be found not in material seekings and individual liberties, but in the moral imperative that binds us together in a common humanity and seeks the broadest measure of justice for all. We must inspire in our people a renewed faith in the unfulfilled dream of our anti-colonial struggle, that out of Asia and Africa can emerge the vision for a more human world order that places at the center of its concern not wealth and power, but the hopes and aspirations of the masses. As today we celebrate the centenary of the Communist party of China, we harbor great hope for the future, and great faith that India and China will answer the call of the times, not as two nations divided by political ideologies, but as one people with common roots dedicated to this vision of a new and better world.

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