Across the Himalayan Gap – A Chinese Quest for Understanding India; Edited by Tan Chung, Zhang Minqiu and Ravni Thakur, Konark Publishers PVT LTD (New Delhi, Seattle)
Reviewed by Namrata Hasija
India and China have shared historical ties and, as immediate neighbours, have seen many ups and downs in their relations. As a result, bilateral ties between the two countries are not only of concern for the countries in question, but are under the scanner from the other countries in the vicinity as well as the world, as any skirmish between the two has a direct impact not only on the region and the larger geopolitics of the world. Post-1962 however, there has been a sense of caution and distrust among the two countries. Even though healthy trade and diplomatic relations have been established, issues still remain unresolved and the media of both countries add to further suspicions about each other. Language has been a barrier rather than a bridge in direct understanding of each other.
Putting this book in this larger framework of mutual perception of distrust, the editor, Prof. Thakur lays out the purpose of the book in her introduction, which is to foster a better intellectual understanding between India and China. The second in a series of an ambitious project to portray a Chinese perception of India, the first being on the subject of the Indian perception of China, this volume is a milestone in filling the gap between two countries, whose inability to look at each other directly has further aggravated misunderstandings.
The main thesis of the book is difficult to map as the book covers different themes across time with essays from well-known Chinese scholars. The book starts with a Chinese perception of India beginning from ancient history to Sun-Yat Sen’s times and ends with a scrutiny of Indian foreign policy. Though the book is divided into seven sections, it would be have been more suitable to divide it into two sections. The first being India’s image, famous Indian personalities, cultural linkages and relations in historical times and under colonial influence, and the second section being on bilateral relations in the post-colonial period, Chinese views on Indian economy and foreign policy.
Historical and Colonial Connections
This section includes essays from Chinese scholars on Chinese and Indian interactions during the colonial phase which was characterised by mutual sympathy and empathy. The essays on Indian culture bring out similarities between the two countries, along with the fact that their interactions are as old as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. After all, the word ‘Cina’ is mentioned in both epics. Special emphasis has been given to Tagore and his influence on Chinese intellectual thinking after his visit to China in 1924. The essays on Indian political figures such as Gandhi and Nehru bring out the Chinese understanding of their methods of struggle and thought.
Contemporary Indian Economics and Bilateral Relations
The essays on Indian economy and its development gives an insight into the Chinese understanding of its strengths such as IT and the private sector and its main weakness being the manufacturing sector and unequal land reform, unproductive agricultural techniques and heavy subsidy burdens.
However, the main attraction for Indian readers would be the essays on bilateral relations which give a Chinese perspective of the reasons for tensions and mistrust between the two countries and how India’s rise is seen by the Chinese. The essay by Wang Dehua, ‘Rise of India: Views from China’ is particularly interesting as he says, “India is looked at more as a neighbouring state, neither enemy nor friend’ by most Chinese. This essay especially focuses on how India-China relations in the 1960’s and up to the end of the Cold War were influenced by the US and the Soviet Union. It was only after the end of the Cold War that bilateral relations between the two developed independently. This section brings out the Chinese perception of the 1962 war that it was India’s aggressive policy of forcing the McMahon line on China as the boundary, which is a colonial legacy. The other irritant for the Chinese is the hosting of the Dalai Lama by India. Despite all the differences the authors of these essays appreciate the growing understanding between the two countries on international issues. Most of the authors believe that both countries can rise and coexist with healthy competition. The border problem remains the main bone of contention between the two countries but increasing trade, people to people exchanges is playing a positive role. However, to strengthen ties, further communication channels should be developed for positive and developmental exchanges.
In less than 500 pages, the volume highlights a variety of Chinese perspectives on Indian polity, society, economy, culture and bilateral relations which is a commendable job. The contributors in the book are renowned academicians and seasoned diplomats which gives great credibility to the book. It is important to understand that the views expressed are of individuals and do not represent the Chinese government’s stand on any issue as rightly pointed out by the editor. The difference in perception about the same issue even within China portrays the growing variation in the intellectual thought defying the monolithic structure of its ideology. The book might find many critics in China and many in India’s strategic and security studies sphere might disagree with the ideas in the book, but this book is indispensible for researchers who are not able get a clear understanding of Chinese perception about India due to the language barrier between the two countries.
Namrata Hasija is a Research Officer with the China Studies Program at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. She can be contacted at namrata @ipcs.org