Published in :
Shyam Saran, a retired diplomat, was number two at the Foreign Ministry in New Delhi and India’s ambassador to Beijing. He is the author of several books on the evolution of Indian diplomacy in Asia and on Sino-Indian relations. His last work How China sees India and the world (Juggernaut, 2022), is a reflection on the ancient rivalries between the two Himalayan neighbors and the evolution of their relations at the dawn of the new millennium.
RFI: We could read your book How China sees India and the world as an Indian diplomat’s tribute to the great Chinese civilization. How was his admiration for China born, and at the same time a competitor and great rival of the nation he represents?
Shyam Saran : This exercise in admiration began with learning the language. When I entered the Indian diplomatic service in 1970, I had to learn a foreign language before being assigned to an embassy. It turns out that the foreign language assigned to me was Mandarin, the Chinese spoken in mainland China. So I went to Hong Kong to learn the language. It took me two good years to master it.
Perhaps more than any other language, the Chinese language is a real window into the parent civilization that is so different from other civilizations I know. Chinese culture is ancient, complex, and ultimately as rich, if not richer, than the country I come from.
Remember that India and China became neighbors only in the 20th century, after Beijing’s conquest of Tibet. But the two countries have known each other for more than 2,000 years. What role did Buddhism play in bringing them together? ?
Buddhism came to China using the Central Asian caravan routes and the sea routes linking the Cormondel coasts and Chinese ports. Buddhist thought enjoyed wide prestige, as evidenced by the presence of Chinese pilgrims in India and that of Indian Buddhist monks in the land of Confucius throughout the first millennium AD.
At the same time, there was a true circulation of knowledge, with the translation into Chinese of philosophical books, but also treatises on Indian medicine. Perceived as an alternative center of culture and civilization, India occupied a privileged place in the Chinese imaginary of the time. In ancient Chinese chronicles, the term for India was ” xitian “, sense ” western paradise “.
Unfortunately, this positive view will become more problematic as we approach the modern age…
In fact, after the decline of Buddhism in South Asia, India disappeared from the Chinese radar screen for several centuries. We will have to wait until the 19th century for these two countries-civilizations to speak again, when India was already part of the British colonial empire. For the Chinese, the land of the Buddha had become a slave nation “.
Furthermore, during the depredations perpetrated during the famous opium wars, Indian soldiers constituted the shock troops of the British colonial army. The nefarious role played by Indian merchants and soldiers during this period had a negative impact on India’s image in China. To see the magnitude of the damage, it is enough to leaf through the writings of the Chinese reformers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who above all did not want their country to know the fate reserved for India.
The end of colonial rule did not bring the two countries closer, as the war between them in 1962 shows. What were the problems? ?
This war was the result of deep mutual misunderstandings. For the Chinese, by offering political asylum to the Dalai Lama, Nehru’s goal could only be to subvert Chinese rule over Tibet. It is difficult for a one-party state to grasp all the subtleties of the workings of a parliamentary democracy.
Indeed, whatever the color of the New Delhi government, it could hardly refuse to welcome the Dalai Lama without being called to order by the people who had elected him. In this context of misunderstandings, the slightest skirmishes that broke out on the border that separates the two countries were interpreted by Beijing as so many attempts to challenge the Chinese occupation of Tibet. As for the mandarins of New Delhi, they did not understand what could well hide the susceptibilities of a Marxist and authoritarian power.
You write that today: In China’s rearview mirror, India’s image continues shrink. » Did India definitely lose the match? ?
It seems to me that the difficult relations between the two countries derive essentially from their asymmetrical powers. Only by strengthening its capabilities in all areas can India meet the Chinese challenge. She is quite capable of this, especially since her actions are measured on the scale of a subcontinent. In addition, India can boast of being supported by great democracies such as the United States, Japan or the countries of the European Union, which are also the main holders of advanced technologies in the world and essential sources of capital.
These advanced democracies feel threatened by the growing Chinese power. The threat has grown since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, in which Moscow and Beijing strengthened their ties. Faced with this alliance of totalitarian states, the West turned to India, with which it shares a democratic tradition and which can act as a counterweight to China. This is an auspicious geopolitical niche for New Delhi. The whole question now is whether the latter will be able to take advantage of the opportunity and put in place an appropriate battle plan, which will allow it to increase its levels of both military and economic capabilities. India needs political will to eventually catch up with China. This is the thesis I defend in my book.
His thesis also consists of reminding the Hindu nationalists in power in New Delhi that it is by staying true to the values enshrined in its Constitution that India will be able to take up the Chinese challenge. What are these values?
I argued that India’s main strengths are its plurality of civilizations and the cosmopolitanism born of its long-standing openness to foreign influences. It seems to me that the most appropriate regime to manage the plurality of tomorrow’s increasingly globalized world is the Indian democratic regime and not the Chinese autocratic model!