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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 28 New Delhi July 2, 2016

President Pranab Mukherjee’s Trip to China

Revisiting Civilisational Linkage to Connect with the Present

Friday 1 July 2016

by Rup Narayan Das

President Pranab Mukherjee visited China from May 24 to 27. It was the most significant visit of the year in the narrative of the relationship between the two countries. Earlier in 2010, his predecessor, Pratibha Debising Patil, had visited China. Both India and China attached considerable strategic significance to the visit. The visit took place at a very critical strategic juncture in the bilateral relations between the two countries. In the first place China’s vetoing of the UN resolution to impose sanction on terrorist organisations, including JeM chief Masood Azhar, had peeved India. Similarly, India’s issuance of electronic visa to Isa, the President of World Uyghur Congress, had also caused some discomfort to China. New Delhi, however, later rescinded the electronic visa.

Also China’s ambiguous stance to India’s application for membership of the Nuclear Supplier Group (MSG) created certain disconcert in New Delhi. On the top of these irritants, India’s closer strategic proximity with the USA aroused some anxiety in China. Thus while the fruition of the visit itself indicated the resolve of the two countries to live together amidst the existential strategic distrust, it confronted President Mukherjee with great challenges to engage with the top Chinese leadership to put across India’s perspectives, particularly to secure Chinese support for India’s application for membership of the NSG.

 It is against this backdrop that the statesman and scholar in Mukherjee came out very sharply in all the articulations and presentations that he made during his visit to China. He very thoughtfully and imaginatively invoked the civilisational linkage of the relations between the two countries to connect with the present. In recent times, ever since the Modi Government came to power, soft power in terms of cultural nuances have come to occupy noticeable space in the narrative of the complex India-China relations. When Prime Minister Modi received Chinese President Xi Jinping at Ahmedabad in his home State of Gujarat in September 2014, he alluded to Xuan Zang, the legendary Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar who undertook seventeen years of sojourn to India in the sixth century to study Buddhism. Xi reciprocated the gesture in equal measure, when he received Modi in May 2015 in his home town of Xi’an, where Xuan Zang had spent the twilight of his life. In the same refrain, Mukherjee in his speech at Peking University said: “We cannot imagine our common history without the central contribution of Kumarjiva or Bodhidharma and experiences of Xuan Zang and Fa Xian from China. There are, of course, periods of which we do not have much information—perhaps these were stretches of time when there was less direct contact. However, it is a matter of great satisfaction that as we pay tribute to the outstanding legacy of these masters, we also vigorously re-engage to revive and re-connect this most satisfying aspect of our people to people relations.”

Recognising the shift of the geo-politics from Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific and the rise of China and India, resurgence of Asia was the oft-quoted refrain in most of his public speeches. In his address on “India-China Relations: Eight Steps to a Partnership of the People”, he recalled that “one of the highpoints of the discourse (between India and China) was the dialogue between Poet Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who is held in high esteem by the Chinese people, and his fellow intellectuals in China on the subject of an Asian revival”.

Quite interestingly the reference to Asian identity in the India-China discourse can be juxtaposed with shared values in the narrative of the Indo-US engagement. He applauded the contribution of Peking University in preserving and continuing this tradition of a very rewarding interaction between scholars monks of both India and China and strengthening of mutual understanding through knowledge sharing and exchange of ideas. In this context he recognised the seminal contributions of two respected contem-porary scholars, Ji Xian Lin and Jin Ke Mu, who established the Department of Indian Studies in Peking University. His insightful observation has traction in the context of what Prof Alka Acharya, a leading Indian scholar and Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, calls knowledge deficit between the two countries and their people.

To bring out the solidarity between the two countries in the historical context he also mentioned “how the Chinese people recall, with appreciation, the 1925 Resolution of the Indian National Congress in support of China after the British-India troops had been dispatched to suppress an anti-imperialist struggle in China”. He further mentioned the role played by Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis who led the Medical Mission to China in 1938 to treat the wounded soldiers during the Sino-Japanese war. The role of the Medical Mission was, however, purely humani-tarian. Turning to post-Independence India, he recalled “India’s constant public support through the 1960s and 1970s for the admission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN and the restitution of its Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council”.

In his concluding remark at the Round Table of select academic leaders from India and China, he reiterated the enduring legacy of knowledge- sharing among the scholars of the two countries and how centres of learning in India like Takshila and Nalanda had hosted Chinese scholars such as Faxian and Xuanang in the 6th century.

President Mukherjee did not fail to refer to the maritime connection between the two countries in his speech at the India-China Business Forum event in Guanzhou on May 25. He mentioned that Han Shu (Book of Han Dynasty) of the 2nd century BCE talks about a direct sea route from Guangdong to Kanchipuram in South India. He further said: “As early as the 4th century BCE, Chinese silk is mentioned in Kautily’s treatise the Arthasahtra.”

He concluded his speech at the Peking University with an optimistic note quoting from what Mahatma Gandhi said in 1942, “I look forward to the day when a free India and a free China will cooperate together in friendship and brotherhood for their own good and for the good Asia and the world.

Director, Research and Information Division, Lok Sabha Secretariat at Parliament House, the author is a Delhi-based scholar on China and a former Senior Fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.