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‘C3S Conversation over Coffee’ on “Polar Silk Road” and “Asian Civiliz

Image Courtesy: Sergey Anisimov/ 

C3S Event Report No: 013/2019

The Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) held its first meeting of the ‘C3S Conversation over Coffee’ discussion series on the May 28 2019. The venue was the C3S Conference Room. The topics discussed were the ‘Polar Silk Road’ and ‘Asian Civilizations’ which were helmed by Dr. Vithal Rajan OC, BA Hons McGill, PhD London School of Economics; Emeritus Chair, SKS; Emeritus Chair, Confederation of Voluntary Associations; Member, C3S.

Cmde. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.), Director, C3S, gave the Welcome Address and introduced the speaker.

Dr. Vithal Rajan emigrated to Canada from India in the mid 1960s, and worked for several years as Information Officer for Canadian Industries Ltd. (I.C.I.) in Montreal. He was founder volunteer chair of the Deccan Development Society, which promotes integrated rural development in the semi-arid poverty-stricken Deccan plateau, literacy and community health programs, and ecological agriculture. He is Emeritus Chair of SKS, the leading micro-finance agency of India, and Emeritus Chair of the Confederation of Voluntary Associations, a network of 800 agencies, which work through community empowerment for harmony between poor Hindu and Muslim communities. In 2006, he was made an Officer, of the Order of Canada, that country’s highest national honor, for a lifetime of achievement and merit of a high degree, especially in service to Canada and to humanity at large. He is Member, C3S. A detailed bio is available at this link:

During the discussion on ‘Polar Silk Road’ India and China were contrasted in the way their respective natives interact and ideate. While the Chinese seem to adopt a rhetoric that is oblique and indirect, Indians have a more direct and ‘modern’ approach in their rhetoric. This has led to misunderstandings between the two countries in the past. An example of such a misunderstanding can be observed in China’s stance on India’s sovereignty over Kashmir. When R. K. Nehru asked Zhou Enlai if China recognized Kashmir as a part of India, Zhou replied saying “Has China ever said that it did not?”. Later when China began to favour Pakistan, the same statement wad turned around and Zhou Enlai stated “Has China ever said that it did recognize Indian sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir?”. Such ambiguity seems to be a part of China’s rhetoric in diplomatic affairs.

China’s ambitions in the Arctic region were first observed when it sought permanent membership in the Arctic Council, despite not being in proximity with the region. Three reasons for why China wished to extend its influence in the Arctic were put forth by a discussant. Firstly, the Arctic is abundant in freshwater resources; ice caps are available for harnessing. Due to China’s large population and the worldwide decline of freshwater resources, China would look to hold a monopoly over these resources in the Arctic. Secondly, if China succeeds in establishing its presence in the Arctic, it would gain a strategic overreach into North America. The third reason is for commercial purposes- China would gain access to the various minerals and other resources within the Arctic. Another important point to consider is that for China to become a superpower, it would have to extend its influence in as many of the world’s spheres of influence as possible. China’s desires to occupy a majority of these spheres of influence can also be seen in its aggressive policies in its neighbourhood as well as in its outer space policies. The Arctic also provides China with a solution to reducing its heavy dependence on the Malacca Strait as an important route for transport of energy resources. These various reasons thus contribute to China’s interests in the Arctic region, which has led to the development of the Polar Silk Route.

Another important point raised in the discussion was that the Arctic region could possibly be an area where Chinese and Indian interests converge. It is in India’s interest to emphasize on areas of cooperation with China over areas of competition or rivalry in order to promote positive interactions with the new superpower in its immediate neighbourhood. Moreover, it was argued that cooperation in such fields can possibly lead to cooperation in other fields. This is essential to India, given its volatile relationship with China. The negative environmental and ecological repercussions of increased activity in the Arctic region were also discussed extensively. With the melting of the polar ice caps, increasing ocean temperatures and the possibility of oil spills, there is an urgent need for countries to conduct their activities in the Arctic region with extreme caution and to explore ways to minimise these negative repercussions. It is possible for China and India to take on the leadership in environmental and climate-based concerns to ensure that the region is not exploited. Furthermore, the panel discussed that the betterment of India-China ties is essential to solving the India-Pakistan dispute.

The second topic that was discussed was that of ‘Asian Civilizations’, based on Xi Jinping’s speech at the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations, at Beijing on May 15 2019. China wished to import foreign cultures in the 5th century AD. Several Chinese scholars traveled to India as well as other countries to increase their exposure and understanding of foreign cultures. Some of the scholars who traveled to India even decided to stay back in India instead of returning home because of India’s culture and hospitality. The discussants noted how Buddhism was imported to China by careful documentation and translation. It was also argued that through its Buddhist links with China, India can focus on being a compassionate and ethical partner of China in the current world. India also had historical links with various South East Asian countries including Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam. An example of Indian influence in the cultures of these countries can be found in the traditional coronation ceremony of Thailand, where Brahmanical and Buddhist rituals are followed. The discussants also exchanged historical data on the spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka through South India. By emphasizing on these historical links and a common culture and heritage, India can improve ties with China. India can indeed be a strong partner to China in shaping the emerging global order.

[Compiled by R. M. V Pavan Raghavendra, Intern, C3S; 2nd year B.A (Research) International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi]

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