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View from China: Is it possible to restart Sino-India people to people relations?

opinionView from China: Is it possible to restart Sino-India people to people relations?

People in both countries need to understand each other’s thought processes and get familiar with the environment and history that shaped/shape their personalities. In the long run this could be beneficial and an ice breaker.

Sino-Indian relations seem to have hit a roadblock since a hiatus in the border talks. It is hoped that some solution will result and incremental normalization of relations could follow. This is the basis on which could depend the growth of the world’s economy. The world’s two largest economies and most populous nations with 35% of the world population could drive the world’s engine of growth to new heights.
Recently, China has relaxed its visa regime post Covid. Rightly, student visas have been the top priority. The large number of students undergoing medical and technological courses in various universities are back. Admissions in India being more difficult, students whose guardians can afford, make a beeline for studies abroad. China being less expensive in comparison to the Americas and Europe; also teaching medium in China being English, it has been finding favour amongst students. Higher studies and research in humanities is one such area where some reciprocity could be considered. Higher studies, such as Masters, Doctorate and post doctorate research in subjects such as Religious Studies, Buddhist Studies, International Relations, History can be undertaken in some of the universities in India and China. There seems to be great desire to learn and deep dive into Indian history, particularly the religious studies. Why did hundreds of travellers from both countries in the past spent years in each other’s countries to understand the religions and governance models? Some of statecraft from Kautilya’s “Arthashashtra” found its way in Chinese Kingdoms. The names of Fa-Hyan and Huen-Tsang are often quoted. Both countries have moved since then and developed into world’s two largest economies. However, today it seems there is less inclination to interact due to strained relations.
People in both countries need to understand each other’s thought processes and get familiar with the environment and history that shaped/shape their personalities. In the long run this could be beneficial and an ice breaker. Right now, there is inadequate understanding of each other’s countries. A better understanding could help build trust for the future while in the present trust is still a work in progress. There is desire amongst scholars and faculty in China and possibly in India to have exchanges. Chinese universities having overcome the language barrier to large extent, Indian researchers and students should not find it too difficult. Most faculties, particularly international relations and technical studies are in English medium and Chinese students are quite proficient.
There are a number of areas where people to people relations can be kickstarted while the two governments are in discussion on border and economic cooperation issues.
An area which will be easily welcomed in China is entertainment. Indian movies with Chinese subtitles have been very popular in the past. The themes on which Indian films are made have been highly appreciated by fairly large masses. It is often surprising to find that so many people are familiar with the names of Bollywood stars. There are a few Chinese songs which resemble Hindi movie background music. Indian music directors could also play the tunes of Chinese language songs.
Think tanks with their ability to exchange views on plethora of issues through Track 2/1.5 dialogues can often become a bridge for Track 1/official dialogue which can build a conducive environment for serious discussions and minimize divergences. Recently conducted virtual dialogue between MP-IDSA and Sichuan University did point at some areas in which China and India could consider making suitable amends to existing viewpoints. These dialogues also lead to face to face in person conferences/seminars to build rapport with individuals and help cooling of tempers. Exchange visits of think-tanks is an area for which visa relaxation could go a long way in normalising relations between the two Asian giants.
The exchange of Professors between universities is yet another way to provide forums for understanding geopolitical thought processes of the intelligentsia of the two countries. This in turn provides better knowledge of the manner in which each one thinks. In this context the diplomats appointed in each other’s embassies could play a significant role. It may begin in the form of publishing articles in newspapers and gradually progress to interaction with think-tanks in the country of their missions. It provides a platform for open discussions amongst people of known competence in various fields.
It has been observed that the teachings of Lord Buddha are still relevant in Chinese societies. Often, there is discussion amongst people on teachings of Buddhism. It has been observed that there is sizable presence of visitors in China in Buddhist shrines and places from where Buddhism spread centuries ago. This gives some hope that people in the two countries would be keen to visit each other’s holy sites. This could be the precursor to tourism of other interests, initially limited numbers of visas which could lead to larger numbers. These interactions could open the doors for more avenues.
At present both countries are part of multilateral forums such as BRICS, SCO, RIC etc. There is convergence on issues of climate, renewable energy such as solar and wind power, decarbonization of the planet, reform of the UN, multipolarity in the new world order, ending the Ukraine conflict, buying oil from Russia despite pressures from western countries, etc. These important forums also provide an opportunity for informal fireside chats and conversations between China and India which could offer an opening for larger bilateral talks on thorny issues.
Of late there has been a chorus by a number of countries towards de-dollarisation in some sectors of trade, particularly hydrocarbon to avoid coming under US sanctions. An alternative being discussed is a BRICS currency. While challenging the dollar as reserve currency by the countries is far-fetched but a limited usage in specific trades is being discussed.
All in all, there seems to be opportunities for greater people to people contact for better understanding. Should bonhomie and respectful relations result, the governments may consider widening the visa regimes for limited number of exchanges in the fields mentioned earlier on the basis of reciprocity. Any subsequent relaxation should be a result of experience gained from the outcomes.
Dr Xiao Jianmei is Associate Professor of China Center for South Asian Studies, Sichuan University. Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd), is Trustee Member of the India Foundation.

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