India and China could reconceive and resolve their simmering border disputes by casting aside traditional power politics and drawing on their shared heritage, L.H.M Ling writes.
On 20 October 1962, Chinese and Indian forces exchanged fire in Ladakh and across the MacMahon Line in the Himalayas. A month later, the war ended as mysteriously as it had begun, yet has shadowed Sino-Indian relations ever since. A ‘trust deficit’ keeps tabs on a series of mutual grievances: the disputed borderlands of Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang; China’s support of Pakistan and presence in Kashmir; India’s ‘Look East’ policy (that is, closer relations with the United States) combined with its unswerving support of the Dalai Lama and his exiled Tibetan community in Dharamsala.
These tensions have flared again recently. Both India and China have been upgrading and expanding their military presence in the Indian Ocean. As two of the world’s fastest-growing economies, they compete fiercely for crucial energy resources in Asia, Africa and Latin America. With one-third of humanity living in these two nuclear powers, a mere skirmish between them could destabilise the region and affect the security of the entire globe.
Still, conventional analysts of international relations would shrug: what’s new? After all, isn’t the international arena just like Hobbes’ state of human nature: “nasty, poor, brutish, lonely, and short”? And doesn’t this kind of power politics apply to everybody and everywhere, regardless of history, culture, language, religion or worldview?
In this view, non-Hobbesian, not to mention non-Western, ways of thinking and doing, relating and being, do not matter. At best, India and China can expect a third, more powerful actor – that is, the US – to intervene and enforce a temporary salve. At worst, war breaks out.
Traditional power politics, I counter, is the problem: it invariably pits one state against another. Alliances can develop but only as defensive measures against a larger ‘bully-state’; moreover, alliances change as national interests change. For this reason, traditional international relations theory and practice can only mitigate, not resolve or transform, conflicts in world politics.
I propose an alternative approach: return India and China to ‘India-China’. The latter concept reflects two thousand years of mutual exchanges, adaptations, learning and enrichment. Of these, Buddhism and medicine stand out. Indeed, each facilitated the other as Buddhist monasteries often pioneered medical knowledge and practices like cataract surgery. Indian (ayurvedic) and Chinese (zhongyi) medicine shared much in common overall despite variations in detail.
With these ancient medical lenses, we can reconceive of the India-China border dispute as a blocked meridian. It prevents crucial energy (prana or jiva in ayurveda; qi in zhongyi) from circulating in the body politic, thereby causing various pathologies. Healing comes when key sites (siras; xue) receive stimulation so energy could resume flowing. Both ayurveda and zhongyi stipulate balance as the means to systemic health. Both advocate an alignment of body, mind and spirit to attain and maintain health.
In this example, systemic health requires resonances within the body (India-China) as well as its larger environment (the international system). With this in mind, a therapeutic strategy consisting of four elements emerges:
Firstly, to achieve balance, India and China must ground themselves in their own philosophies and traditions, practices and worldviews to counter the external pressures of traditional power politics. In this context, the 1962 border dispute qualifies as a mere blink of the historical eye when compared to two millennia of Sino-Indian interactions as peoples, empires and civilisations.
Secondly, to stimulate flows, India-China must release the essential life-force of contemporary, globalised times: trade, commerce, tourism, investment, job creation and economic development. Regional initiatives like the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation already prescribe this remedy. But circulations must cross metaphorical, not just geopolitical, borders. Only a combination of the ‘hard’ currency of goods, capital and labour with a ‘soft’ collection of memories, identities and social relations could sustain an open flow.
The third necessary element is resonance. The Himalayas nurtured the growth and maturation of both civilisations, qualifying India-China as ‘Himalayan twins’. In recognition of their civilisational womb, India and China could collaborate on shared concerns with the region’s environment and biodiversity. From this basis, the two countries could develop a new ‘standard of civilisation’ for themselves as well as the rest of the world.
The fourth element is the concept of inter-being. This relates to the ancient Buddhist tenet of pratitya samutpada (co-dependent arising). It urges Indian and Chinese analysts to emphasise their shared identity (“You are in me and I in you”) despite the public conflicts and the trust deficit that pull them apart. In this way, India-China together can reach the balance needed to face and perhaps transform hard power politics.
Analysts of international relations – but especially those in India and China – must wake up. The world cannot afford another generation of zero-sum power politics, especially between the two nuclear-armed behemoths holding one-third of humanity. Other, non-Western, ways of thinking about the world are not only possible; such worldviews are in fact already held by millions of people outside the West. And these ideas, like the shared heritage of the Chinese and Indian civilisations, might be what is most needed to return a traumatised border back to health.