For some time now, world-watchers have been assuring us that the 21st century belongs to Chindia, the bubbling, bulging behemoth that is the hybrid of what were Asia’s most venerable ancient civilisations and are now her largest modern economies.
Despite the fact that such assumptions are usually based on woeful ignorance of Chindia’s often dysfunctional infrastructures, and despite the current blip in growth worldwide, such a forecast still seems pretty accurate. Of more interest perhaps is the relationship between Chindia’s two unequal parts, and it is this that will be brought into sharp focus this month when the new and dynamic Indian Premier Narendra Modi goes to Beijing to visit his opposite number, Communist supremo Xi Jinping.
Those with a sense of history will recall how very different these two ancient civilisations have been during their long and remarkable histories. China had been accustomed to some sort of centralised rule centuries before the Communists under Mao finally routed the Kuomintang forces under Chiang Kai-shek and established the People’s Republic of China in late 1949. Autocratic centralised rule went right back to the days of the Qin empire two hundred years before the birth of Christ, as it happens; Chairman Mao was but the latest in the long, long line of autocratic Emperors and the present one, Kingpin Jinping, probably has no less of a sense of entitlement. India, by contrast, could never go Communist. Despite her persisting and ravenous material needs she is far too anarchic for such enforced and top-down conformity. Historically, she was always a subcontinent divided between independent and feuding kingdoms and the quasi-national (though in fact predominantly northern) unity that was established first under the Mughals in the 16th century and then assumed by the British in the 19th, was the nearest the country had come to being unified since the reign of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC.
The two giants’ contribution to world civilisation has been balanced but very different. Down-to-earth China invented three things that shaped the modern world – printing, gunpowder and the compass – while India preferred to exercise expertise in more abstract realms, bequeathing us mathematics and philosophy, chess and Buddhism. This last was to play a huge part in shaping the cultures of east Asia of course, and in particular China herself.
The omens for the meeting of the two Asian bosses are not that good. When Xi came to India in the autumn of 2014, Modi lost no time in showing him round his home state of Gujarat, where a much-vaunted economic miracle was being lauded as the model for the country at large. But the happy mood was rudely shattered when more than 200 Chinese soldiers entered India’s remote Himalayan province of Ladakh bearing not diplomatic gifts but cranes and bulldozers to build a road. They only retreated when the Indian army challenged them head on. The Chinese like to do this sort of thing; largely unreported to the outside world, many dozens of such incursions take place along this disputed border every year. What is more, they are often timed to coincide with high-profile visits between the two nations, just to make the point. So Modi’s coming visit may well prove interesting for more than just the polite handshakes and frozen smiles for the camera.
This regional jostling is not between equals, as one might imagine at first glance from their vast sizes and roughly equal populations - each over 1 billion souls. China’s economy is four times as large as India’s and the benefits of her astonishing growth have been spread over a far larger segment of the population. The subcontinent, on the other hand is proud of being ‘the world’s largest democracy’ and whatever that may actually mean on the ground, it is a fact that in political and intellectual freedom, she far outstrips the smouldering leviathan to her East. This difference was underlined forcibly in mid-April, when China imposed oppressive election laws on her hapless satellite Hong Kong. Individual rights in John Company’s old entrepot? No chance, mate.
Such autocratic moves take the mind back fifty five years to the invasion and brutalising of Tibet, a situation still painfully unresolved. Mindful of the huge possible economic benefits China can offer them, Western governments have had shamefully little to say about Tibet over the years. The delusional, self-serving Tony Blair, ostensibly so keen to defend democracy in Iraq, even forbade the Dalai Lama to change planes at Heathrow airport for fear of angering the Chinese. Thankfully, those days are gone and His Holiness is now allowed in the country, even though Britain continues officially to recognise China’s sovereignty over Tibet.
In fact the Dalai, as he is fondly known in India, will visit London in June as part of his 80th birthday celebrations, no matter who is then in power at Westminster. But Beijing has made it plain to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that Xi’s own visit to Britain, expected in the autumn, will be seriously thrown in doubt if the Tibetan religious leader is given an official reception. Delicate diplomacy will be needed here; perhaps the relatively unaligned Prince Charles, a long-time friend of the Dalai, will at least be able to organise a clandestine cup of tea – best quality Indian of course - at Clarence House.
Be that as it may, as you read this China is tightening the screws in what is probably its most vicious ideological clampdown for years. Buddhist monks and nuns must now swear allegiance to the party, while ordinary citizens are forbidden to pray or light traditional butter lamps in memory of the 130 people – both lay and religious - who have burnt themselves to death in protest against the recent wave of religious and cultural persecution. Even burning incense is now against the law; Buddhist monasteries tolerated over recent years as tourist dollar earners are henceforth to be turned into propaganda organs dishing out state-approved books, magazines and broadcast media. Everything in the country is increasingly monitored and controlled, a process aided by recent advances in chip and biometric technology and harsh online and social media censorship.
Back in 1949, it was India that unhesitatingly picked up the pieces when China invaded Tibet, offering refuge and land to the Dalai and tens of thousands of his compatriots. Mao did not forgive Nehru’s humanitarian generosity, and enacting the old principle that revenge is a dish best served cold, launched the 1962 border war in reprisal. Those frontier issues are still unresolved today, a festering sore between the two countries. In addition to the Ladakh controversy, there is an entire Indian state, the mountain region of Arunachal Pradesh in the north east of the country, that Beijing considers to be part of (Chinese occupied) Tibet, and therefore hers by right.
Economic cooperation will, of course be the public platform shared between the giants during Modi’s visit, but the financial agenda will not be able to paper over some very large cracks. Early this April, for example, China announced plans to build a major road over the Himalayas to its long-standing ally Pakistan. A redder rag to the Indian sacred bull could hardly be imagined. It also revealed plans to dig a tunnel under Mount Everest, no less, to link it to Nepal, a landlocked and Hindu country that has always been closely linked to India politically, religiously and economically. The devastation caused by the recent tragic earthquake there has focussed the eyes of the world on what is a shattered country that will take at least a generation to recover. Such attention must make even the Chinese, notorious for their lack of concern for both environmental desecration and world opinion, pause to reconsider the wisdom of this project in an area of such chronic tectonic instability. Beijing’s use of deep underground blasting to re-route the major rivers that drain off the Tibetan plateau and then blocking them with extensive dams and hydro-electric schemes, has already caused international ecological experts considerable apprehension.
On the other hand, the social and political chaos that must follow the earthquake may well open up Nepal ever further to accepting assorted Trojan horses offered by her eastern neighbour. The former kingdom is already heavily infiltrated with Chinese abetted Maoism - guerrillas, parties and elected supporters, although they have been somewhat quieter in recent months. India is all too well aware of the connections between Nepal’s leftists and her own ‘red corridor’, a ribbon of what is effectively a running civil war that runs diagonally through the subcontinent from Calcutta to Cochin. Increased penetration of Nepal was surely part of the original intent behind the sub-Everest highway. Remember that road the Russian Bear kindly built through Afghanistan up to Kabul in the early 1970s? A few months after it was completed she kindly drove her tanks down it.
The Dragon would never try to subsume the Cow of course, why on earth would she want to take that place on? Nonetheless, she is clearly and patiently pursuing a policing of tying her neighbour up in knots. Part of this strategy is to establish a string of friendly seaports from Burma to Pakistan via Shri Lanka and the Maldives – safe havens that have the added advantage of ensuring an open and profitable channel to the Gulf States. Partly as a way to counteract this stealth offensive, Modi has spent much of his early time in office boosting his international profile and establishing relations with other world powers. This has involved some bold moves. Despite the two countries long friendship, he broke off relations with the Maldives when the government there clamped down on democracy and persecuted ex-President Nasheed. Then he stood up for Vietnam’s sovereignty over her territorial waters in the face of China’s clear intention to achieve ever greater dominance throughout the South China Sea.
In some places the Hindu goddess of Fortune seems to be currently on Modi’s side. As a devout believer in charge of a saffron-tinted (some would say tainted) government, his amicable connection with Mauritius, with its large Indian population, appears assured. Best of all, Shri Lanka, which had allowed the Chinese to build airports, roads and harbours as her reward for not criticising the Singalese government’s bloody suppression of the Tamil Tigers, recently suffered a change of leadership. Out went China-friendly President Rajapaksa, in came the new President Sirisena. Pointedly, he chose to make New Delhi the first port of call after his election.
Back here in the toothless ex-colonial power that is modern Britain, our time for such expansive concerns has long passed. We cannot realistically expect to strut our stuff with youthful optimism on the world stage in the new century - UK plc has hardly the vision to fund a few decent rural bus routes, let alone strike a spanking new highway under the world’s highest mountain. No, the more likely scenario for us little islanders is to continue as a nation of jaded voyeurs slumped on the sofa glued to ‘Strictly’. It could be worse, at least the rather ungainly tango between the Sacred Cow and the Secular Dragon may well provide us wallflowers with entertainment for some time yet.