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Santosh Srivastava asked: How Opium Wars shaped India-China relationship? Is there any substantial evidence that opium exports from India to China led to discord between the two mighty civilizations during the colonial era?

Prashant Kumar Singh replies: The Opium Wars in the mid-19th century were an outcome of the conflict brought about by Britain’s relentless push for expansion of trade on the Chinese territories. China at the time had a closed door policy towards the European colonial powers. The Opium Wars finally forced China to open its door to foreign trade and on very unequal terms. Repeated defeat at the hands of the European powers came as a huge cultural shock for China that had long prided itself as the ‘Middle Kingdom’. Along with Britain and France, various other powers such as Germany and Italy as well as Czarist Russia and Japan subsequently became imperialist stakeholders in the exploitation of a weakened China.

Although China never became a classic colony as India was of Great Britain, extra-territorial claims by imperialist powers severely undermined the Chinese sovereignty and forced it to open up its ports and make trade concessions that wreaked havoc on its economy and society. It was with the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 that China could finally emerge from what is regarded as the ‘Century of Humiliation’ in the Chinese national discourse.

It is often argued that China came to have a negative perception of India due to the participation of Indian troops in the Opium Wars. In this regard, one needs to bear in mind three basic historical facts: first, China’s exposure of India at the time was second hand as India then was a British colony; second, it was colonial British India and not an Indian force per se that had participated in the Opium Wars; and finally, the opium, the root cause of the Anglo-China wars, was produced in India though but the trade was conducted by the East India Company, the trading arm of Imperial Britain. The wars, therefore, were primarily fought between Qing Dynasty China and Great Britain, with the latter drawing troops from its Indian colony.

It must also be noted that India does not commemorate Indian troops’ participation in the Opium Wars as a national legacy. India instead regards the India-China solidarity against imperialism and the support extended by the Indian National Congress to the Chinese resistance against Japanese invasions in 1930s and 40s as its national legacy with reference to China. Put simply, memories of the Opium Wars do not shape the contemporary India-China relations.

Posted on October 05, 2015