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Round-table Discussion on the “Development of Chinese Studies in India”

C3S Event Report No: 004/2019

The Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) and Centre for Asia Studies (CAS) organized a Roundtable Discussion on February 4 2019 on the subject ‘Development of Chinese Studies in India’. The discussion was led by Dr. Reena Marwah, Assistant Professor, University of Delhi and ICSSR Senior Fellow at the Centre for Development Studies. The event was moderated by  Professor V. Suryanarayanan, President, C3S and saw participation of C3S members, research officers and interns.

Dr. Reena Marwah presented a copy of Millennial Asia, a journal of the Association of Asia Scholars to the C3S Director, Cmde. R.S. Vasan. Foregrounding the discussion on China studies in South Asia, Dr. Marwah stated that she was conducting interviews of Sinologists in the region, as part of an oral history project that records the opinions and perspectives of diplomats posted in China.

On the subject of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Dr. Marwah pointed out that China’s sharp power has necessitated a soft power approach. This is being carried out through China studies centers, Chinese language centres and other forms of cultural propagation that softens the sharp power of Chinese diplomacy. Cmde. Vasan observed that the operation of Chinese diplomacy is likely to change considering the adaptive nature of China’s foreign policy ventures. This has come about due to the reaction and apprehensions of other countries regarding China’s infrastructure and debt diplomacy. This process, Dr. Marwah observed, has given rise to the perception that India is losing out in its own backyard. An explanation for the loss of influence is that India’s cultural and historical linkages have not been realized to their full capacity.

Speaking of historical linkages, Cmde. Vasan pointed out that China’s deep pockets have overpowered the traditional influence that India has enjoyed. However, the apprehensions regarding debt traps have made countries cautious about accepting Chinese money, as is the case with Maldives, Malaysia and Myanmar. In addition, Dr. Marwah spoke of multilateral groupings that India has mobilized to serve its interests – BIMSTEC, Act East and SAARC – which have not yielded concrete results and instead created a string of pearls in India’s own neighborhood. These groupings require greater oversight and project management capabilities. Citing the example of the India-Thailand Trilateral Highway that began in 2004, Dr. Marwah reasoned that delays in completing projects has reduced the efficacy of multilateral institutions.

Speaking of Indian embassies and diplomatic missions abroad, Dr. Marwah noted that the hassles of working with Indian embassies has frustrated officials and intellectuals at various levels of the policy dialogue. The poor interpretation of rules and procedures by embassy officials has made citizens and officials of other countries reluctant to work with Indian embassies. On the other hand, China’s diplomatic machinery has made others countries more willing to do business with the Chinese.

Mr. Rahul Reddy, Research Officer, C3S, pointed out that initiatives like BIMSTEC have failed to deliver due to a shortage of financial and personnel resources that translate into a lack of political will. The Indian government has also been unable to relieve local political differences that stand in the way of agreements such as the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) from being implemented. Cross-border trade facilitation measures have not been prioritized, which has prevented cross-border trade linkages from developing as well. Though India prides itself on its historical relationships with the countries in our neighborhood, the consciousness of these regions and countries among the common Indian citizen does not translate into a greater people to people contacts or cultural exchanges. Indian history textbooks in this regard could do more to generate awareness about Chinese history for example, to improve the awareness of civilizations of the East.

Ms. Asma Masood, Research Officer, C3S, expressed concerns about the impact of China’s cultural diplomacy on the local population of a certain region. Access to language centres, literature and cultural artefacts are limited to the intellectual elites of a certain country and the local population is likely to face only the negative externalities of China’s presence. On the other hand, India’s soft power is embedded and operates on a people-to-people basis which has been the basis for India’s historical and contemporary relationship with countries such as Afghanistan and Myanmar. Regarding the subpar performance of India’s multilateral initiatives, Ms. Asma Masood recommended a bi-lateral approach to initiatives and agreements that may produce better results, compared to the multilateral approach.

Dr. Marwah also highlighted the importance of students who travel to China to pursue their higher education. Students from Sri Lanka and other countries travelling to China to study may develop a soft corner for China, as a result of the cultural soft power that Beijing exercises. Therefore, the newer generations are likely to be swayed by the soft power approach and have a benign view of China. While there is a suspicion of China’s cultural initiatives, there is a similar suspicion in China of the effect of religions in India.

On the subject of the shortage of resources at the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Government of India- Mr. K. Satyanarayanan, Member, C3S, queried whether the MEA was aware of the resource constraints that limit India’s multilateral initiatives. C3S members and Dr. Marwah discussed the various factors that contribute to the shortage in funding. Dr. Marwah touched upon the lack of vision and the prioritization of internal matters over external issues as two possible factors that explain the shortage of funding.

On the subject of integrating North-East India to the (Indian) mainland, Dr. Marwah pointed out that bridging South-East Asia and North-East India is yet to be achieved. Put simply, the facilitation of cross border trade is hindered by the quality of Indian roads at the border. On the other hand, the Chinese roads on the other side of the border enable cross border commerce with India’s neighbors. This is how Chinese goods are made available in Myanmar and other South-East Asian countries.

On the subject of India studies in China, Dr. Marwah spoke of the lack of any forward movement in India studies. Responding to questions about the MEA’s awareness of India studies in China, Dr. Marwah pointed out that India studies centre in China are not sufficient. To conclude, Mr. K. Satyanarayanan mentioned that any initiative in India attempting to improve awareness of China, including research studies, has been challenged by visa issues and other procedural considerations.

Prof. Suryanarayan delivered the vote of thanks.

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