Debotri Dhar | Chanakya, China & diverse ideals of global friendship

Exploring Chanakya's Legacy: The Paradigm Shift in International Relations through Friendship

Kautilya (375-283 BCE), the legendary author of the Indian political treatise Arthashastra and chief adviser in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, who established the Mauryan empire after defeating the Nanda dynasty, is said to have been interdisciplinary. Referred to as Chanakya in the popular imagination, and mentioned in ancient Buddhist sources such as the Mahavamsa, Jain Shvetambara commentaries and Somadeva’s Kathasaritasagara, among others, his wide-ranging work spanned political science, international relations, diplomacy, economics, history, philosophy and the law, long before interdisciplinarity became the global buzzword that it is today.

As an interdisciplinary scholar analysing global affairs through the lens of cultural, political and post-colonial studies, history, economics and yet others, I found that drawing from multiple directions can fill gaps in the dominant international relations discourse, such as on the theories of balancing, bandwagoning and strategic aligning -- practices through which less powerful states are conventionally understood to survive in a political minefield of great power rivalries.

Importantly, expanded frameworks not just help in understanding global-local inequities and social justice issues, but also allow for a creative, conceptual reimagining of some traditional frameworks for cooperation. One such concept that allows for a widening, a reimagining of the language of militaristic and strategic partnerships, is the framework of friendship, or “maitreyi”.

In researching friendship in international relations, and locating the small body of literature on this subject across disciplines, my earlier writing points to how friendship as a framework entails an innovative paradigm shift, a transformative vision. Affective ties between state-friends are strengthened by genuine empathy, mutual respect and support, taking it beyond the relationship’s instrumental or opportunistic benefits. I argued that while historically powerful Western nations often have, in a continuation of colonial tactics, assumed a unilateral right to lecture, inter-state friendship involves reciprocity, care, and mutual understanding, to which we must add trustworthy communications and authentic addressing of concerns. Since most of this scholarship on friendship is from Western perspectives, it becomes imperative to also include multiple eastern philosophies and perspectives from the Global South.

Chanakya’s centuries-old “mandala” theory of foreign policy is an interesting example. In a simplified form, the theory states that one’s immediate neighbour is likely to be an enemy state (ari) while the neighbour’s neighbour can be a friend (ari-mitra), that friend’s neighbour is again a potential enemy, and so forth. Despite the model’s limitations, it does offer a glimpse into the theory and practice of realpolitik long before Henry Kissinger. At the same time, in focusing on strategic alliances, important idealistic strands in Chanakya’s work are overlooked. So along with the use of the danda (force) and the more insidious bheda (creating mistrust among friends in order to gain power, an immoral strategy which the British later termed “divide and rule”),

Chanakya also emphasises the law of just force -- for a powerful state to not use an excessive, disproportionate amount of force against a less powerful entity -- as well as sama (peace) and dana (gift). He also writes of the importance of neutral-leaning states that, regardless of their size, can better understand issues on more than one side and thus more effectively play the role of interlocutors and mediators. Yet others like Mahavira (599–527 BCE), the final Jain tirthankara, taught the doctrine of anekantavada (many-sidedness), which postulates that truth and reality are complex and have multiple aspects. These and several other philosophies challenge the binary model of, as an American President had said: “You are either with us or against us.”

Interestingly, gender studies as a field challenges binaries, framing gender as a spectrum and, more recently, adding “they” as a pronoun for members of the queer community. Meanwhile, pronouns in many languages from the Global South such as Bengali were never gendered to begin with.

What insights do these diverse philosophies and frameworks hold for regional and global cooperation? Most importantly, they pose a moral challenge to the aggressive bloc-building that keeps us forever teetering on the brink of the next world war. Take the case of China. The Chinese incursions in territories such as the Scarborough Shoal, the Paracel Islands and other parts of the South China Sea region such as the waters off the coasts of Sabah, Sarawek, and Natuna, has put it at loggerheads with Asian nations like the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. India has also been affected, whether in the Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas or the northeastern and other borders. In 1950, China occupied Tibet; and the Dalai Lama later being given shelter in India was a key reason why China waged war in 1962, calling a ceasefire only after US President John Kennedy agreed to send military support to India. Today, Taiwan is worried. China has also claimed Doklam Jakarlung, and Pasamlung regions of the small kingdom of Bhutan, raising further concerns for regional security. Has the mighty dragon been a friend to its Asian neighbours? If powerful Western nations are criticised for across-the-globe military expansionism, powerful eastern ones are also held accountable. Pragmatic alliances may be useful in the short term, but maitreyi and the philosophies of peaceful global coexistence like vasudhaiva kumtumbakam, and amity among local communities through ideas of religious pluralism such as sarva dharma sambhava and the sulh-e-kul preached by Emperor Akbar, when practiced, offer more peace and stability in the long run.

As in the case of Afghanistan which, beginning with the Soviet invasion of 1979, and the ensuing Cold War policies of successive American administrations such as those of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, led to an erasure of diverse voices and paved the way for the rise of the Taliban, history bears testimony that when two dominant powers tussle over a smaller one, the latter is destroyed.

Within a Western binary left-right model that is critical of nonalignment, entities must first be fully classified in order to be managed, under an almost-Foucauldian biopolitical logic such that collaborations, too, cannot precede classification. Yet we would do well to welcome a diverse polyphony of perspectives outside of linear, quotidian positions. It is alarming when battles for global domination unjustly target independent scholars and members of the Asian diaspora. Let them be. Protect their voices, their ideas of fairness; from them will continue to come the just educators, mediators and peace advocates, the architects of a pluralistic world which values democracy, knowledge, and the health and well-being of all, in a comity of friendly nations.

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