Ways of Thinking: Psycholinguistic Reflections on Sino-Indian Relationships and Potentialities

  • Ravi Bhoothalingam

Could there exist identifiable ways of thinking that are distinctive to the Indian and Chinese psyches, and if so, what might the implications reveal? Could they throw light on some frequently asked questions like: What explains the Chinese prowess in infrastructure and manufacturing? Will China ever become a democracy? Will China and India be friends? The author ponders on these questions, revealing some fascinating insights that could pave the way for improved relations between the two neighbours.

The emergence of India and China as potential leaders of the 21st century has drawn worldwide attention. Eminent journals have speculated on a scenario when both nations are expected to have overtaken the USA in GNP terms—China by 2030 and India by 2050. The National Intelligence Committee of the United States has further examined the military implications of China’s rise and its consequences for world geopolitics. Many books have addressed the theme, predicting all manner of outcomes ranging from dire war to peaceful collaboration. Not to be left behind, popular magazines and newspapers took up the India-China theme, liberally using the term ‘Chindia’ coined by Indian Minister of Environment, Jairam Ramesh. Meanwhile, the perceived dichotomies were further enhanced by depicting China as a dragon (in Western terms, menacing) and
India as an elephant (wise but lumbering), quite ignoring the meaning of these symbols in their respective cultures.
My acquaintance with China started well before this time, arising from an avid interest in that country through travel and exploration over the last 15 years. I have no claim to being a scholar or an economist, but often during my travels I pondered over the differences between India and China. Could there exist, I wondered, identifiable ways of thinking that are distinctive to the Indian and Chinese psyches, and if so, what might the implications reveal? Could they throw light on some frequently asked questions like: What explains the Chinese prowess in infrastructure and manufacturing? Will China ever become a democracy? Will China and India be friends?
On a more practical note, reading Ranganathan and Khanna’s excellent book reminded me that the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict arose through a disastrous “chain of misperceptions and misunderstandings.” This situation seems ominously likely to arise again, given recent events, as neither country appears in the meantime to have invested seriously in endeavours to gain deeper knowledge and understanding of the other, let alone read each others’ signals. But, on the positive side, what opportunities does mutual engagement open for both India and China? And what could the simultaneous rise of these two nations mean for the world?
Despite growing trade ties between India and China—total trade by 2008 was nearly US $ 52 billion, growing at 50% annually —the two countries are yet to engage with each other in a meaningful way, either on the economic front, or indeed any other. Investment flows are weak, tourism a mere blip. Until 2007, the only direct flight between Beijing and Delhi was still by Ethiopian Airlines—a service started 4 decades ago! Even this much-hyped trade growth is heavily dependent (nearly 75%) on low-value primary products out of India, while the trade deficit with China is growing. Meanwhile, the rest of the world rushes to exploit the strengths of China as the ‘world’s factory’ and increasingly of advanced technology and R&D. Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan, are all heavily involved in China. Each still has serious political issues with China, some with a long and bitter history, but these have not held them back from vigorous engagement with a rapidly growing Chinese economy, to mutual benefit.
But, according to the global consultants McKinsey & Co. , whilst 25% of executives worldwide regard China as their most important growth centre after the USA, only 4% of Indian CEOs share that belief. Similarly, only 2% of Chinese bosses see India as a major growth point. Despite the formidable reputation of Indian as well as Chinese businessmen for seeking out profit anywhere in the world, they seem wary of treading into each other’s country. Both governments are cautious; India’s much more so. Amongst the citizenry on both sides, a yawning knowledge gap prevails. Whilst active in all other directions, India and China remain terra incognita to
each other.
This lack of mutual awareness is no longer just an academic weakness. I believe it can be a serious impediment to India’s growth, blind us to opportunities and even constitute a vulnerability that leads to conflict. To paraphrase Sunzi, “foreknowledge of the other”—friend or foe—is vital for any kind of policy formulation. But where does one start? Most accounts to ‘explain’ China or India rely on economic or political analyses. But might there be more basic factors? After all, both politics and economics are driven by human agency, and what distinguishes humans from animals is the development and use of language and the influence of culture. Can language and culture reveal both the potentialities and the pitfalls of the India-China engagement? This paper searches for possible answers.

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