Myths of dominance
China did not ever enjoy military or cultural supremacy in Asia
- Published 30.08.17
The author is former foreign secretary of India firstname.lastname@example.org
The West has built a lot of myths about China which others, including in India, have accepted without challenge. That China was for centuries the dominant power in Asia and is now on the way to recovering that lost status is one such myth. This historical distortion is serving to legitimize China's hegemonic ambitions, as if China has the right to recover its natural position in Asia and any resistance amounts to denying the Chinese their due. This explains why even when China is aggressive and expansionist, it gets away by projecting itself as a victim of encroachment on its rights by others.
The question is never asked as to how China dominated India, the second largest Asian country that has always been comparable in terms of the depth of civilization, demography as well as geography. Did China ever dominate India politically, economically, militarily or otherwise? If this was never the case, how was China the dominant power in Asia? India is as much a part of Asia as China, although even now in Western circles, 'Asian' in popular parlance excludes those from the Indian subcontinent and refers only to countries east of India.
In the Western mind - and this has influenced its economic and military perspectives - Asia stretches from Japan to Myanmar, as a conflation is made between Asia and people with Mongoloid features. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, set up in 1989, claimed to represent Asia but India was excluded. The Asia-Europe Meeting, set up in 1996, also excluded India, until it became a member in 2008, even though India is the second largest country of Asia. Such a definition of Asia that excludes India naturally gives China a pre-eminent position in it. An additional factor is India's colonization by the British that diminished India's historical standing and benefited China in terms of attention and research. China has also gained in stature vis-à-vis India because it was not fully colonized, remained mysterious and relatively inaccessible.
In reality, the Indian civilization owes nothing to China, whereas China is heavily marked by the influence of Indian civilization through Buddhism. In a larger civilizational sense, it is India that 'dominated' China rather than the reverse. Several years ago, during my first visit to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, I steered myself immediately to the Indian arts section and, struck by the magnificent pieces of Buddhist art on display, wondered why I had never seen such beautiful pieces in India, until I discovered on reading a caption that the hall housed Chinese art. For some moments I related totally with great pleasure to what I thought was Indian art, not Chinese. A visit to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing reveals how deep the imprint of Buddhist thinking and architecture on Chinese imperial monuments is. Similarly, another magnificent monument, the Lama Temple in Beijing, is a reminder of China's Buddhist links with India. The Longmen, Mogao and Yungang grottoes, the Leshan Giant Buddha, the White Horse Temple at Luoyang, the cave temples at Dunhuang are some of the other such links spread across Chinese territory. The connection with the Indian civilization is palpable in China. There is no such imprint or legacy of Han China in India.
Even in Southeast Asia, the Indian civilizational influence is far more marked than the Chinese, in spite of the fact that some of these countries are geographically contiguous with China or are in its periphery. Visiting the Musée Guimet in Paris, which exclusively houses Asian art from Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and so on, one immediately enters the Indian civilizational world, whether Hindu or Buddhist or a curious admixture of the two. If China was so dominant, then where is the Chinese equivalent of Angkor Wat or Borobudur in this part of Asia? The pervasive influence of Hindu epics and Sanskrit on the cultural landscape of Southeast Asia is truly remarkable.
Militarily too, China has not dominated Asia. In fact, China has had no historical contact with India on its land frontiers and therefore any notion that China had military supremacy in Asia is totally false. It is only when China forcibly occupied Tibet that Han China and India came into direct military contact. On our northern border, no people-to-people contact between Hans and our own population has ever existed historically. All talk of the historical presence of 'Chinese' graziers in border areas under dispute with India as a justification of its claims that the concerned land is Chinese territory is bunkum, as the Chinese conveniently conflate 'Tibetan' with 'Chinese'. Actually, China's military control of Tibet of the kind we see today dates only from 1950. East Turkestan, or what the Chinese called Sinkiang, is only a recent Chinese possession - partly a gift from the Russians. The fact that China holds down Tibet and East Turkestan by force and against the wishes of its people questions the notion of China being the dominant power in Asia historically. Even in the case of Japan, while Chinese influence has marked Japanese culture, writing, architecture and so on, China has not dominated Japan militarily. China's crowing about the military defeat it imposed on India in a limited border war in 1962 should be tempered by its own experience of the vastly greater military humiliations it suffered at the hands of much smaller Japan in recent history, defeats that for China are still traumatic, far more than our own trauma of 1962.
Similarly, the Silk Road too is a subject of much myth-making and the impression has been created that China historically dominated the Asian trade routes that also encompassed India. Actually, the term Silk Road is of 19th-century German coinage and gained currency only in the 20th century. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of Central Asia to the world, harking back to the Silk Road served as a historical basis to build connectivity between these countries towards the east and west independent of Russia. The evocation of the Silk Road gives China the benign cover it needed for expanding itself geopolitically westwards to pursue its hegemonic ambitions in Asia fuelled by its phenomenal economic rise. Historically, the Hans did not dominate the trade routes; the Silk Route trade, the volume of which remains controversial, was actually handled by numerous staggered intermediaries that included Arabs, Syrians, Persians, Somalis, Greeks, Romans, Georgians, Armenians, Bactrians, Turkmens and the Sogdians. India as a whole had very limited contact with the so-called Silk Road. Some experts argue that the maritime spice trade with India and Arabia was far more consequential for the Roman Empire's economy than the silk trade with China.
Historically, until British colonialism sapped the Indian economy, China's economy was either marginally higher or lower than India's. In 1500, China was the world's largest economy followed closely by India with estimated gross domestic products of approximately 100 billion. In 1700, India, with a share of 25 per cent of the global income was the largest economy closely followed by China.
In the context of the Doklam stand-off and China's crude behaviour, the myth of China's historical ascendancy in Asia at India's cost needs to be debunked.