Four civilizational lessons for a productive dynamic


back to issue

India and China have a complicated and convoluted relationship. Border disputes, incursions and other irritants have clouded their bilateral relations for over sixty years. Annual Sino-Indian trade ($87 bn)1 is less than one-third of China-South Korea trade (310 bn) and even lower than China-Vietnam ($105 bn).2 China’s investment to date in India is below US$ 17 billion, though recent trends show an accelerating Chinese interest in India’s e-commerce and digital start-ups.3 One million tourists travel annually between the two countries – a tiny fraction of their combined outbound flow of nearly 150 million tourists. Overall, the India-China canvas of engagement is very far from its potential.4

Indians and Chinese also know very little about each other’s country, history, peoples or economy. The media in either country – given the nature of media – ensures that the other is either exoticized or demonized. This promotes a state of underlying tension that is grist to the mill for vested interests. So, it is not surprising that the Pew Global Survey (2017) of attitudes finds that only 26% of Indians have a favourable view of China.5 To India, China is ‘the other’; to China, India remains an enigma.

China’s per capita annual income of US$ 9771 is nearer India’s level (US$ 2015) than that of the US ($ 62641).6 Accordingly, China and India share many problems: environmental pollution, adverse sex ratios, social security burdens and serious future risks from pandemics and climate change effects. Finally, man-made problems like terrorism, cyber crime, adverse trade and investment regimes pose impediments to both nations.

Science should generate some solutions to these issues, but there is very little discourse on R&D between the two countries. So far, India has looked westward for scientific innovation, with the occasional nod to Japan and Korea. But from all current indicators, China is very likely to be the next major pole of global innovation.7 Therefore, Sino-Indian cooperation in science and technology seems a sensible step. More Chinese investment too should help – just 1% of China’s $3 billion foreign reserves invested in India could enhance India’s GDP growth by 0.2%.8 But how do you cooperate closely with a competitor, even a rival?


When businessmen, scientists and sportsmen seek excellence and innovation, they skillfully intertwine competition and cooperation. Businesses compete fiercely in the marketplace, but collaborate in matters of mutual interest. For sportsmen, the common ground is the spirit of the Olympian slogan ‘faster, higher, stronger’. Scientists pursue a shared goal: the unravelling of nature’s secrets. Nobel Prize-winning chemist (and current President of the Royal Society) Venki Ramakrishnan remarks: ‘…the distinction between competition and collaboration is not so clear-cut… even when scientists are competing, they are actually using one another’s advances…and are thus collaborating…’.9 It is not a coincidence that Silicon Valley, the Greater Boston area, and the Cambridge (UK) Science cluster hold the largest number of patents per square mile. Incidentally, Indian and Chinese scientists populate many of the innovative ventures in those regions.


India does not handle its competition/collaboration dilemma with China very well. Consider the mélange of Indian public sentiment towards China – hurt at the 1962 ‘stab in the back’, envy about China’s astounding rise, and anger that China denies India its due respect. While understandable, such attitudes encourage hyper-nationalist posturing and an over-emphasis on security, impeding10 human contacts and an environment of rational discourse with the world’s second largest economy. Further, such feelings are not one-sided: the Chinese too have a sharp historical memory of Indian troops (under British command) policing Chinese cities during the Opium Wars. Therefore, we must seek a Sino-Indian narrative that rides well above these symmetrical grievances, if we are not to remain in thrall to them.

Current international relations theory has few tools to tackle this conundrum. Even diplomacy’s innovative avatar in the shape of the ‘informal summit’ has only succeeded – at best – in keeping the Sino-Indian relationship on the rails. To realize its full potential, India’s new ‘China narrative’ must provide both political acceptability and economic acceleration. And what better source for inspiration than the centuries-long history of India-China linkages?11


India and China have a rich history of contacts over two millennia. Scholars such as Lokesh Chandra, Tansen Sen, Liu Xinru and Tan Chung (inter alia) have documented the process of ‘cultural interflow’12 and the ‘circulation of people, ideas and products’13 between these two ancient civilizations, showing how each individually and together contributed to the intellectual and cultural evolution of Asia. Not only did Buddhist monks undertake the long and hazardous journey from India to China to spread the faith, they were accompanied by traders, explorers, scholars, artists, scientists and many disparate camp-followers.14

Kumarajiva (of Indian and Central Asian parentage), who travelled to China in the 4th century A.D. and translated many Buddhist sutras into Chinese (including the Diamond and the Lotus Sutras) is still considered by experts in China as the best of the ‘four great translators’.15 During the Tang Empire, an Indian astronomer was President of the Imperial Board of Astronomy at Xian, one amongst many Indian scientists. At around the same time, the travels and experiences of Xuan Zang, who had returned to Xian after spending 14 years in India, electrified the Tang court. The records of the Buddhist sutras that Xuan Zang brought back from India remain housed until this day in the Da Yan Tan pagoda in Xian.

During the 12th century A.D., as Buddhism declined in India, the pace of Sino-Indian trade and cultural traffic decreased,16 but picked up again in the Yuan and early Ming periods. The last 100 years of the colonial period saw intensified trade between the two countries, though under the dark shadow of the Opium Wars.17 Simultaneously, China and India also sought from each other a way out of the ravages of imperialism, and here luminaries such as Rabindranath Tagore, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao and Sun Yatsen opened new doors. Just before Indian independence, Cheena Bhavan in Santiniketan was established by Tagore as the centre for learning and research into Chinese civilization. A detailed account of these civilizational exchanges is contained in a remarkable two-volume collaborative work by Indian and Chinese scholars, sponsored by their respective governments.18


What do we mean by ‘civilizational lessons’? As described, Sino-Indian civilizational connections ranged across the material, spiritual, economic, scientific and cultural, along with the magical and the mundane. But the operational processes that made those connections creative and productive are, we argue below, quite scientific and secular. It is these processes that we term as ‘lessons’ and now explore below.

The first lesson from the foregoing summary account of the India-China connections is that the motive force powering them lay primarily with the individuals or groups who undertook these ventures, rather than state power. These groups were often supported by merchants as keen on earning profits as ‘merit’ under the prevailing Buddhist canon. But rarely were these travels and expeditions the result of directives from the various kingdoms of India or the Chinese imperial state, though the latter was generally more assertive. Those ruling dispensations had limited power to block19 these activities: border controls did not exist, nor visas or passports. Nor did the state control long-distance transport, as modern nations do with bilateral airline agreements.20


Accordingly, it was the diverse and generally untrammeled people-to-people contacts’, to use the current official and rather bloodless phrase, that powered the China-India connections. These enterprises were largely self-directed and with no unified purpose, evolving as they progressed with convergences, divergences and blind alleys along the way. For that very reason, they were rich sources of knowledge. People-to-people connections advance through the sharing of common interests, knowledge and goals. When such cross-country connections expand, the fields for discourse and transaction between the two peoples widen, and the areas of contention stand reduced in proportion.

The second lesson is that the human interactions in the Sino-Indian civilizational encounters generated experiential learning, which transforms hard-held attitudes and perceptions. The term ‘experiential learning’ (EL) was coined by the psychologist David Kolb, who built on the work of Jean Piaget and Kurt Lewin. This type of human learning employs all the five senses along with reflection, emotion, conceptualization and experimentation, to create a coherent account of how experiences are transformed into knowledge.21 The holism of EL distinguishes it from other theories of learning such as the cognitive (which stresses only mental processes) or the behavioural (which ignores subjective experience). EL also promotes creativity and flexibility. For example, all children experiment with their environment, using their senses to learn by trial and error; they do not fear failure. As their brains develop, conceptualization starts playing an increasing role.


The itinerant early travellers, monks and traders who traversed the difficult and dangerous land and sea routes between India and China encountered great diversity in the peoples they met en route. This was ripe soil for the application of EL. A long journey is an excellent way to become more enlightened about ones’ travelling companions, the outside world and indeed about oneself. Further, challenging and intense experiences often prompt a change of views, a novel idea, or even a radical transformation in one’s life.

This quality of EL has particular relevance to India’s predicament (see earlier section). Whenever strong convictions or biases are challenged by logical argument, that conflict generates ‘cognitive dissonance’, creating discomfort. Our brains then produce a convenient internal rationalization to preserve our original and closely guarded ‘truths’.22 Smokers, for example, rarely give up their habit in response to evidence. Emotions thus trump logic.

EL is well equipped to penetrate this barrier of ‘cognitive dissonance’, and thus is the tool of choice to overcome strong convictions, biases or habituated responses. Logical debates or formal judicial processes rarely suffice to bridge the emotional and social fractures caused by strong and opposing religious, social or political convictions.23 On the other hand, consider how Buddhism diffused itself into China over the centuries, despite the strong hold of the native traditions of Daoism and Confucianism. It began by offering the Chinese people novel experiential rewards,24 and thereafter, intellectual content as well. In this process, it influenced those older traditions, and in turn transformed itself.


On digging deeper into the morphology of experiential learning in the India-China context, we arrive at the third lesson: that the build-up of knowledge was through non-reciprocal and circulatory processes of human travel and transactions of goods, technology and ideas over a long period. Tansen Sen25 and Prasenjit Duara26 have explained these concepts with great clarity. To grasp this lesson, we must understand its two key components – non-reciprocity and circularity.

X visits Y and gifts him a basket of six apples. Later, when Y visits X, he gifts her a basket of six oranges. Why? Because X loves oranges whilst Y loves apples, and these facts are known to both. So, while this transaction is non-reciprocal in exchange value, it is completely reciprocal when valued subjectively. This is how we evaluate gifting to family, close friends or valued colleagues – we discern what they might want, without anticipating anything in return (at least not immediately). Such relationships are usually long lasting, because they promote a chain of transactions based on subjective and not exchange reciprocity.


Ideas and technologies require knowledge to be shared, investigated and then improved. This implies close and intense communication, often involving other parties and countries. The resulting flows are thus both non-reciprocal and circular: they stimulate and widen circuits of communication and exchange, creating value over the long-term. But when we look at the contemporary India-China case, some of these networks (acronyms explained here)27 have been stunted (BCIM), and others limited (SCO and RIC). BRICS has produced some fruit, but India has shunned those that hold greater promise like the RCEP28 and the BRI.29 This latent potential needs to be reactivated, and new links formed for scientific and technological advancement.

In hindsight, we can discern in these long India-China exchanges a fourth lesson: the existence of a ‘Master project’ that has left an indelible mark on both countries – the diffusion of Buddhism from India to China and beyond – through Tibet, Central and Southeast Asia. This is an outcome of the first three lessons at work. The somewhat routine mention of the Buddhist connection in every India-China forum (mostly as a ‘soft power’ strategy), should not diminish the grandeur of this achievement or its capacity to stir our imagination. Early in the 20th century, Tagore, Sun Yatsen and Okakura Tenshin conceived of another master project that was stillborn – of a resurgent Asia cast in a mould very different from the West. We still await such a ‘master project’ for our times.


Today, we cannot afford to let things happen at the leisurely pace of previous centuries. Accordingly, we now apply these civilizational lessons in seriatim to the current context, and propose policy recommendations to build a more creative and productive India-China relationship. The elements of this ‘grand narrative’ are:

One, expanding and encouraging people-to-people contacts with China manifold, to create a growing sphere of engagement that will reduce the salience of discordant issues. Impediments to travel, interaction and communication should be minimized across all fronts.

Two, focusing particular government attention on the types of human connection conducive to generate widespread experiential learning. The emphasis should be on youth, sports, adventure, tourism, the creative arts, sciences, technology, and all partnerships or civil society initiatives between the two nations, and even bilateral partnerships in third countries.

3. Increasing India’s connectivity options, through reconfiguring India’s role in the RCEP and (selectively) in the BRI. We must leverage the benefits from these circular and (seemingly) non-reciprocal connections and circuits, to stimulate exports and accelerate investment, with the goal of reducing asymmetries with China.30 An energetic science and technology partnership with China is necessary for the maximization of benefits (on both sides), but it must be integrated with calibrated risk evaluation and mitigation.

Four, establishing a collaborative India-China ‘Master Project’ which delivers large-scale public benefit and captures the public imagination. Consider joint space missions,31 climate change partnerships, trans-boundary river/water conservation projects, and transformative initiatives in health and education.

There are no guarantees in life. Even countries with deep civilizational ties and close people-to-people relations have faced conflict if not war. But countries like India and China with long civilizational memories have a duty to grasp our planetary challenges, and to respond innovatively with a vision and a plan for the coming generations. We should take up that challenge with conviction.


* I record my deep thanks to Professors Manoranjan Mohanty, Madhavan Palat and Madhavi Thampi for their valuable suggestions. Responsibility for the views expressed in the article, of course, remains mine.


1. Ministry of Commerce, GOI figures for 2018-19.

2. International Trade Centre figures for South Korea and Vietnam relate to calendar year 2018.

3. Investment figures from official Chinese and Indian sources vary due to definitional issues. The above figure is a realistic estimate from Invest India. Divay Pranav, Who is Attracting Chinese FDI? Recent Trends, Emerging Hotspots, & Future Trajectory. National Investment Promotion and Facilitation Agency, 26 November 2019.

4. Ravi Bhoothalingam, Why India and China Matter to Each Other. Lecture at the Society for Policy Studies, India Habitat Centre, 30 October 2017.

5. The Pew Global Attitude Survey for Spring 2017 shows negative Indian attitudes to China totaling 74% from ‘very unfavourable’ to ‘somewhat unfavourable’.

6. Country-wise GDP per capita (2018) in current U$ from the World Bank PCAP.CD?locations=CN

7. Ravi Bhoothalingam, China: An Emerging Innovation Superpower? Lecture at the Asia Centre, Bangalore, 18 November 2018.

8. An annual $30 bn. investment with a capital-output ratio of five, yields an incremental GDP of $6 bn.

9. Venki Ramakrishnan, Gene Machine. HarperCollins India, 2018.

10. Viz. the conditions imposed by the University Grants Commission on 1 October 2019 (ironically, shortly before the Mamallapuram ‘informal summit’) requiring prior official sanction for student and faculty exchanges with Chinese universities. Attitudes towards Chinese investments remain ambivalent.

11. The terms ‘India’ and ‘China’ are used here and in the following paragraphs purely for convenience to denote the two respective civilizational entities, which emerged as modern nation states only in the 20th century.

12. Lokesh Chandra, ‘India and China: The Beyond and the Within’, in Tan Chung (ed.), Across the Himalayan Gap: An Indian Quest for Understanding China. Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, 1998.

13. Tansen Sen, India, China and the World: A Connected History. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2018.

14. Xinru Liu, Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges, AD 1-600. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1988.

15. The others in this category being Paramartha, Amoghavajra and Xuan Zang.

16. Xinru Liu, Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People, AD 600-1200. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997.

17. Madhavi Thampi, Indians in China, 1800-1949. Manohar, New Delhi, 2005.

18. Ministry of External Affairs, Encyclopedia of India-China Cultural Contacts. MEA, Government of India, 2014.

19. Indeed, Xuan Zang undertook his journey to India in express defiance of Tang Emperor Taizong, and had to seek permission from the latter for his re-entry into China 16 years later. Taizong was quick to assent.

20. However, the Ming bureaucracy did succeed in blocking further maritime expeditions after Admiral Zheng He’s death in 1433.

21. K. Cherry, ‘The Experiential Learning Theory of David Kolb’, 24 September 2019.

22. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin Books, London, 2012.

23. Successful cases of reconciliation have employed this principle. An outstanding example is the work of South Africa’s noted Truth and Reconciliation Commission in that nation’s immediate post-apartheid period.

24. Xinru Liu (op.cit) points out that, in general, meditation, iconography, chanting, monastic fellowship, charity and social service were the first attractions of Buddhism, theoretical and philosophical enquiry followed later.

25. Tansen Sen, 2018, op. cit.

26. Prasenjit Duara, The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015.

27. BCIM is the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Regional Cooperation Forum, SCO is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, RIC is the Russia-India-China Trilateral Cooperation Initiative, BRICS the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa Forum and RCEP is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and BRI is the Belt and Road Initiative. See Amita Batra, ‘Reflections on RCEP and FTAs’, Business Standard, 18 November 2019, for a clear and concise view on the reality and potential of RCEP.

28. Amita Batra, ibid.

29. Ravi Bhoothalingam, ‘India and China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative: A Turning Point?’ The Wire, 10 May 2019.

30. An example: rather than worry overmuch about the bilateral trade deficit with China, we should use those imports wisely, and aim at large inward investments from China. Rather than the trade deficit, it is the net effect on the overall national balance of payments that matters. Membership of value chains and circuits promotes that balance.

31. The U.S.-Soviet joint space missions during the Cold War were remarkable examples of cooperation in futuristic areas, and aroused great interest worldwide.