How Well Do China and India Know Each Other?

Not well enough. But there are signs that the two Asian giants have begun taking a stronger interest in each other.


Chinese Premier Li Keqiang waves at the media in front of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his ceremonial reception at the Indian President's palace in New Delhi, India, Monday, May 20, 2013. (Saurabh Das/AP)

This post is adapted from a conversation on ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site. See the full exchange here.

Mark Frazier:

The significance of Li Keqiang's visit to India can be overstated, as is true of any state visit, but I do think that it's a sign of a continued willingness to improve relations with India by putting aside the difficult issues, especially those surrounding the border dispute. The improvement in relations over the past ten years shows that a border dispute, to paraphrase Alexander Wendt, is what states make of it.

What is of greater concern than the border dispute is the fact that in both countries, understandings of each other's history, culture, and much else remain quite shallow among political elites and professionals, to say nothing of the public. Both governments devote ample resources for the training of specialists in general security studies and foreign policy within a handful of top-tier universities and research institutions. Most of these become diplomats or analysts in think-tanks, and few have country-specific training on China or India. This means that only a handful of scholars in China possess a deep knowledge of Indian culture and history, including skills in Hindi and other Indian languages. The same is true for Indian scholars who can speak and read Chinese for their research and who work outside the usual areas of foreign policy and economics.

This too often results in a distorted view of how Indians perceive China and how Chinese look at India. News outlets, blogs, and other foreign policy forums are dominated by non-specialists who nonetheless speak with authority and credibility on how India should handle relations with China, and vice versa. Most often, hawkish views grab the headlines.

I'm describing a problem that we're familiar with in the United States, which has a long past of government sponsorship of area studies programs only after national security crises and conflicts. Still, for India and China to enjoy the kind of relationship that their leaders profess to want, of mutual understanding and respect, their governments are pursuing a funding strategy that will never get to where they want to be in their bilateral relationship. This requires careful and strategic thinking on how to deepen China studies in India and how to do the same for India studies in China. Governments are not only to blame. In conversations about this issue in both countries, I'm frequently told that few students want to pursue a career as a China specialist or India specialist, let alone undertake the work involved in language training.

This lack of interest in improved understandings of the other civilization is somewhat ironic, as a number of historians have shown. Interactions between the two go back for two thousand years, most famously with the spread of Buddhism to China. Even a century ago, Chinese and Indian intellectuals spoke of a pan-Asian sentiment that tied the two closely together and would provide alternatives to Western culture and its forms of social, economic, and political organization. This spirit of pan-Asianism was revived after Indian independence and the Chinese revolution, but was quickly buried with the 1962 war. I suspect that the pan-Asian concept was not raised during Li Keqiang's visit, but a few scholars today are taking a keen interest in understanding the historical roots and future possibilities of a pan-Asian regionalism in which Chinese and Indians would revive interactions that flourished in the pre-modern state era.

A version of this post appears at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.