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India-China Cultural Relations: ‘Covidiplomacy’ and Beyond; By Asma Masood

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Image Courtesy: China Daily

Article 04/2020

Have a plan. Have a lifeboat plan. Then, have another lifeboat plan.

These words resound through the prism of India-China people-to-people relations, in the uncertain backdrop of 2020. A nano-microscopic organism poses major challenges to bilateral cultural relations in the coming months, if not years. Known as ‘Covid-19’, this entity may prove that germs, not guns, are higher barriers to mount. It raises queries on the potential of cultural interactions: Are seeming threats to public health yet another reason for India to spurn the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? What are the implications for visa regimes? Will the revitalization of trade after the crisis translate into stronger inter-people linkages? Or will trust be infected with a new form of suspicion which can be at many levels viz., governmental, cultural and other transactional dimensions? An attempt can be made to delve into  possible scenarios and some answers:

  1. Vis-à-vis BRI: India will continue its stance on BRI on the grounds of sovereignty issues and on concerns regarding lack of transparency, strategic aspects and long-term economic safeguards. Traditional diplomacy on other fronts is likely to be sustained, with an increased focus on medical cooperation. On the other hand, China will need to brace for some unexpected responses from BRI partner countries, given their concerns on the origin of the pandemic. These countries may look for concessions on debt relief and will be compelled to review their own commitments to BRI. Therefore, more countries could join the same boat as India, with regard to BRI.

  2. The question of visas: Changes in visa regulations will be an issue governing relations between various states and not only India and China. In April 2020, China approached other countries to discuss the easing of travel restrictions and to fast track business travel. However, around the same time, the USA announced a temporary suspension of immigration. These cross-continental dynamics can alter the way businesspersons interact or how tourists make travel plans. India will face decisions on allowing travellers from China as well as neighbouring countries. This aspect can tilt the balance of relations between South Asia/Southeast Asia with India vis-à-vis China. India can apply an integrated solution, involving health precautions at entry points for all travellers and guaranteeing sanitized environments for tourists. This would be parallel to greater scrutiny of e-visas and tourist visas in order to ensure they are not violated.

  3. On spillover of trade revival into cultural ties: The demands of commercial security would rejuvenate trade and investments. However Indian enterprises may be encouraged to look at alternate or parallel supply chains, including local and regional backups. In addition, many countries which are planning to move businesses out of China could look to India as an alternative. However, to make this a reality would require India to resolve bureaucratic and systemic delays in channelling incoming investments. ‘Make for India’ now has a new imperative. Cultural collaborations apart, the practical reality must be acknowledged, that India cannot afford to ‘put most of its economic eggs in a Chinese basket’. The issue of hostile takeover bids is a valid concern. Nevertheless, India’s economic shortcomings which were deepened by the pandemic, indicate that future Chinese investments cannot be undermined. A similar situation arises in China’s need for trade with India. This two-way dilemma may be a blessing in disguise, to aid enhanced inter-people contacts. However as mentioned afore, the point of visas is to be considered. Moreover, the ‘will to cooperate’ at all levels including culture is a pertinent aspect. These challenges boil down to the fundamental of ‘trust’.

  4. Regarding trust issues: While there were reportedly some cases of anti-Chinese sentiment in India amidst coronavirus outbreak, as seen in media reports and social media posts, society-wide escalation needs to be averted. Think tanks (enabled with digital connectivity to work indoors during lockdowns), can chalk out strategies for dealing with the challenges that are likely to arise in India-China cultural relations after the pandemic is contained. This strategizing cannot be a singular effort. At the opportune time, it is vital to facilitate collaboration between the relevant ministries, businesses, technology experts, tourism stakeholders, language schools, educational institutes and other people-to-people realms. A positive note here has been that the governments on both sides have been careful and measured in their statements. Unlike the West, the Government of India has been pragmatic and realistic. A few options can be considered for the post-Covid scenario which requires stakeholders on both sides to come together for mutual benefit. Firstly, think tanks can conduct surveys on Indian perceptions of Chinese citizens to determine the degree of such sentiments. The study needs to be substantiated by examining the extent to which Indian students who seek higher education or employment opportunities abroad and businessmen with interests in China, are still keen on learning Mandarin. Outlook towards Confucius Institutes is another useful indicator. There are already cases of Confucius Institutes being shut in Sweden, as well as the University of Maryland, USA and University of California- Davis, USA. From the other side, it is yet to be seen what methods China will adopt, to continue or adapt its scholarship program for international students. Secondly, is that both countries will face the challenge of retaining talent. In India, software companies and BPOs may lay-off workers due to loss of clients in other countries under lockdown. In China, about half of the businesses have closed, partly due to decreasing orders from the West. It is necessary to track how India-China socio-economic and socio-cultural relations are impacted by these scenarios. Besides, stricter controls can also impact border-trade. It remains to be seen how commerce in China will normalize amidst decreasing COVID-19 cases, as India still grapples with health-cum-financial challenges. In addition, it would be beneficial to study how the Chinese demand for Indian professionals in IT and other skill markets pans out in the near future.

In any of the above dynamics for cooperation, trust is an inevitable essential. Which path should the two countries follow- the Indian strategy of ‘trust, then verify’, or the Chinese plan of ‘do not wait for trust to cooperate’? One infers that trust need not mean compromise, especially in the field of cultural relations where immense scope can be harnessed. Bilateral goodwill and an awareness that some challenges such as coronavirus do not know borders, can catalyse culture as a bridge. The two next-door neighbours need to increase ‘sharing of the pot’ of people-to-people ties, which in itself can send ripples into trade and diplomatic overtures.

Several takeaways can be drawn from the three C3S cultural conferences, in the context of the ongoing outbreak.

  1. Historical perspectives can help comprehend current scenarios. For instance Mao Zedong’s emphasis on Confucianism and the similar focus as sustained by Xi Jinping; these may give clues for understanding the way in which the Chinese under each leader responded to crises.

  2. There is a need to study the Chinese perception of Indians through the ages. One point often raised by the Chinese is that their country, unlike India, has a unified central government since ancient times. This aspect was also brought up by the Chinese media when Narendra Modi announced the nationwide lockdown in March 2020. The media in China denoted scepticism over the lockdown’s success, saying that India’s democratic system will bring challenges in implementation and that India needs to learn from the Chinese approach of handling the pandemic. However, India’s containment mechanisms, which demonstrate effectiveness to an extent, will be keenly discussed in the Chinese media.

  3. A pandemic can add new contours to nationalism and subtract from inter-cultural cooperation. True, health diplomacy is on the rise. But there are doubts cast on people-to-people connections in this arena, given the mandatory reliance on governmental support and official channels for international efforts in streamlining healthcare. Nevertheless, India and China can combine scientific prowess, testing capabilities and pharmaceutical advantages to filling the void left by the US withdrawing funding to the World Health Organization as of April 2020.

  4. Ancient maritime linkages across the Indian Ocean were channels for not only commercial links and cultural influences but also unintentionally became a conduit for spreading of diseases. Fast-forwarding to the time when the rest of the world reels from the health calamity, China is seen as rebuilding its resources, both onshore and offshore. Questions are raised, however, on post-COVID economic projections for partner-states along Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and the impact of existing debt owed to China. Another pressing concern is whether there will be a further influx of Chinese workers into BRI partner-countries, where they are unlikely to assimilate, leading to cultural frictions. There is also visible disapproval at the Chinese system and leadership which are held responsible for the disease spreading in other countries, due to free travel out of China before the issue became one of a pandemic. The example of Italy serves as a stark reminder to India in future foreign policy decision-making towards China.

  5. Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and communism can help better understand the responses of Chinese citizens to lockdowns, loss of near ones and layoffs. A unified response to Chinese government measures, sacrifice for the ‘greater good’ as seen in the Wuhan lockdown, and adapting to change “like water”, were some Chinese mantras in tackling the crisis.

  6. The mistrust between China and the US due to trade disputes is now compounded by attempts to disparage each other’s responses to coronavirus. Besides, there are varying domestic perceptions observed in the two countries, as seen in freedom of movement vis-à-vis stay-at-home orders.

  7. The US is unlikely to get back to ‘business as usual’ mode with China in the foreseeable future; besides there would be many more reviews in military, political, strategic and economic engagements. These would, in turn, lead to schisms at the cultural front.

  8. In contrast, China-Japan diplomatic relations grew stronger during the initial stages of the pandemic. This is seen in the Shinzo Abe government, unlike the US and few other countries, avoiding a blame game with China. Besides, there was also no obstacle to the smooth exchange of medical equipment, masks and testing kits between China and Japan. The high level of existing Sino-Japanese people-to-people relations may be a significant factor here. However, in later stages, Japan is moving companies out of China, which can impact inter-people linkages via business platforms.

  9. One wonders whether prevalent Chinese attitudes to gender, will affect upcoming population trends, given the high tally of deaths caused by the outbreak.

  10. Indians can gain tremendously by learning Mandarin Chinese, whereby they can access Chinese media and social media, and further, their understanding in scientific, social and economic spheres amidst/after the pandemic.

  11. The differences in the idea of identity in China and India may be behind the contrasting responses to lockdowns.

  12. A likely Chinese official manoeuvre would be to enlist the support of diaspora for repairing China’s global image. The question remains on what strategies China would employ in this angle, given the likely long-term challenges that can arise.

  13. Publications of Chinese fantasy writings and science fiction, which are already popular overseas, may increase while probably adopting themes similar to health emergencies or other cross-border crises. Chinese publishers may cash in on readers’ appetite for catharsis from imagined scenarios based on surrounding apprehensions.

As India and China celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, 2020 has been designated as the Year of India-China Cultural Relations. This provides an ideal platform and opportunity to take stock of the direction in which bilateral relations between these two countries, each with a great civilisation, would be headed towards, from a people-to-people perspective. And this decade will see India celebrating the 75th Anniversary of its Independence in 2022 and China will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the founding the Communist Party of China.  Statements, ideas and thoughts could evolve towards a positive appraisal and inherent strengthening of the partnership between the two countries.  And culture and people-to-people contacts are essential elements in any State to State relationship. A decade from now, this can be seen as a year when cultural opportunity surpassed calamity.

The COVID pandemic has pushed countries to expand the contours of a digital world. Inter-governmental and business transactions by necessity are now largely being conducted online. Many companies are considering such channels which could allow them to cut down costs, more so in the services sector. Hence a new dimension of people-to-people relations could emerge, one of the virtual kind. A list of internet-based recommendations as below, can overcome barriers until normalcy returns, thus preventing cultural backlog:

  1. Online language classes- It is of note that C3S is conducting classes for Mandarin via teleconferencing, from April 2020.

  2. Cyber-training in skills/e-internships- Interns from across continents are set to be mentored online by C3S in summer 2020.

  3. Sharing e-libraries- CNKI, a Chinese e-resources centre, has given think tanks free access to its journals until lockdowns last.

  4. While the earlier India-China bilateral agreement for a think-tanks seminar on a ship in 2020 is likely to be postponed, an online conference is within practical limits.

  5. Enhancing Tele-medicine.

  6. Remote education on Indian and Chinese social and cultural nuances.

  7. Indian yoga experts offering free online classes to the Chinese.

  8. Virtual tourism- Drones can be one means of filming.

  9. Indian and Chinese movie/documentary streaming platforms, accessible for viewers across the border.

  10. Volunteers can sub-title Chinese documentaries and films for Indian audiences.

Naysayers may question the strength of culture, specifically in times of crises. They may also view that that in times such as now, culture cannot be a priority. However, it is during crises like these that the necessity is greater for Indians to promote cultural understanding, gain knowledge of Mandarin language, exchange notes with Chinese counterparts, obtain the ability to read and evaluate Chinese media reports and infer from social media forums like Weibo. Avoiding cultural misunderstandings and encouraging outreach may not appear as urgent as resolving strategic, commercial and other challenges. But it cannot be denied that a knowledge deficit in the cultural sphere and the resultant incapacity to sense the cultural pulse, will only further complicate these issues. Hence trust can be a starting point, as well as an advantageous by-product of increased people-to-people relations. In the end (or rather, in a new beginning), the two sides’ citizens can, ‘interact with each other (even from the safety of indoors), cover themselves from toxic media reports, rinse relations with objective information frequently and cleanse away distrust, as the balcony of inter-cultural communication heralds a turning point in bilateral relations’.

(Asma Masood is Associate Member, C3S. Email id:

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