What an extraordinary coincidence that just as the 50th anniversary of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee’s death fell, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was rediscovering Jawaharlal Nehru in Beijing. The irony could not be greater for Vajpayee was among the Indians who had made it virtually impossible for Panditji to accept Zhou Enlai’s “package deal” for the permanent solution of the border dispute during 1958-60. Domestic critics will undoubtedly vilify the prime minister for a “sell out” and for getting only “implicit” concessions from the Chinese in return for our “explicit” compromises. These fears are groundless and are based on a lack of appreciation of the nuanced and measured manner in which the Chinese conduct their foreign policy.
While the prime minister himself ultimately deserves the kudos for the political direction he has charted, some of his aides have played a key role in facilitating this conceptual breakthrough. First, Brajesh Mishra himself, who was the recipient of Mao’s ice-breaking homily of May 1, 1970, that “India is a great country and the Indian people are a great people. Chinese and Indian people ought to live as friends, they cannot always quarrel”. And second, the outgoing Indian ambassador in Beijing, Shiv Shankar Menon, who appears to have China running through his system. Not only has he been a student of Chinese history and a China-specialist but he is also the grandson of the redoubtable K.P.S. Menon, who was our agent-general and ambassador in China during 1943-47, the nephew of another K.P.S. Menon, who was foreign secretary at the time of Rajiv Gandhi’s truly historic December 1988 trip to China and the son-in-law of R.D. Sathe, who had served in Kashgar and had later been our ambassador in Beijing in the very late Seventies.
Vajpayee’s trip has received headlines for its very strong economic component. Trade is all set to expand even further while a new beginning is on the anvil for investment ties. Hopefully, the prime minister’s vision will overcome the suspicion that still exists here about the growing Chinese presence in India. Unlike his meetings with other world leaders, the subject of terrorism appears to have been overshadowed in his talks with the Chinese leaders. It may well have come up, for the Chinese are indeed worried by what is happening particularly in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. It is because of links between the taliban and Islamic separatist groups in Xinjiang that China sought to buy peace with Mullah Omar’s regime. And it is certainly one reason why China would like to maintain more than cordial ties with Pakistan.
Indeed, concern over the three “isms” — terrorism, extremism and separatism — is also one of the main reasons why the Chinese have taken the initiative to establish the Shanghai Cooperation Organization by roping in Russia, Kazakhistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzistan and Tajikistan. The SCO is meant to promote regional security and economic integration. While the secretariat is in China, a regional anti-terrorism agency has come into being in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. While the SCO was conceived of prior to the events of September 11, 2001, and therefore had something of an anti-American flavour, the establishment of an American presence in Afghanistan and central Asia and the growing bonhomie between Russia and America in the wake of 9/11 has given it a whole new orientation.
The Chinese accord great importance to the SCO and see it both as a means of fostering closer ties with Russia and also as a means of expanding their influence in central Asia. Central Asia is important to China economically as, according to present trends, China will soon be importing between a third and two-fifths of its oil requirements. There has been some talk of India joining the SCO, but not much progress has been made. The Russians have been particularly keen on our entry. Pakistan, Iran, Mongolia and Sri Lanka have also expressed an interest in joining the organization.
September 11 has provoked world-wide interest in Islam. Islam is not normally associated with China, as it is with India or Indonesia, but it has played a significant role in Chinese history. Beginning in the 10th century, Muslim traders played an important role in globalizing China’s economy. They filled the gap caused by the demise of Indian Buddhism and promoted Sino-Indian trade. The famous Chinese explorer, Admiral Zheng He, who made several epochal voyages in the first two decades of the 15th century, including some to the Malabar Coast, was a Muslim. But denigration of Islam — as the eminent anthropologist, Dru Gladney, points out in his classic, Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic — has had a long and respectable history in China. This has persisted into modern times, and in the immediate aftermath of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, there was a major suppression of Islam.
As late as during the Cultural Revolution, the Weizhou Great Mosque in northern China, described as the most beautiful mosque in China, was destroyed. But since then, attitudes have begun to change and Muslims are getting increasing political, economic and cultural space. Muslim students, observes Gladney, have indulged in public protests — in 1989, for instance, against the publication of a book in Chinese called Xing Fengsu (Sexual Customs), a book akin to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
Estimates vary, but the official count is that today about 2 per cent of China is Muslim — that is, China has around 20 million Muslims. Xinjiang has been a Muslim-majority province but in typical Chinese style, the demographics have been altered, as it has been in Tibet, by mass resettlement of the dominant Han communities. Over the past four decades, the Han proportion of Xinjiang’s population has increased to at least 40 per cent. Xinjiang’s population is just 18-20 million but its importance lies in its natural resources like hydrocarbons and minerals and in the fact that it covers a sixth of China’s land area. Pipelines to bring in Xinjiang’s enormous reserves of oil and gas into the eastern region are being planned.
The Uygur of Xinjiang are one of the 10 so-called Muslim nationalities of China, the others being the Hui, Kazak, Dongxiang, Kyrgyz, Salar, Tajik, Uzbek, Baoan and Tatar. The Hui are the most numerous and are found all over China, but especially in the provinces of Ningxia, Gansu, Henan, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Yunnan and Hebei. The northern province of Ningxia is an autonomous region even though the Han constitute the vast majority there. While Uygur activism and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement continues to receive international attention, not much is known about other revivalist groups, like the Salaffiya, that seem to be growing in China.
China’s rich Buddhist legacy, which Vajpayee will see in Laoyang, continues to be the subject of new scholarship. We may exult in this, although the Chinese have Sinified Buddhism, evinced, for instance, by the transformation of the male Avalokitesvara into the female Guanyin. But it is China’s not inconsiderable Islamic heritage that will impart an additional dimension to Sino-Indian political ties. In addition, the presence of Sanskritic and Tamil culture, in southeast China particularly, is something that is waiting to be explored more systematically. Hopefully, the new chapter that Vajpayee’s visit has opened will intensify deeper cross-cultural understanding as well.