In June/July of the year 720 CE a delegation of South Indians from Mahabalipuram visited the imperial court of China bearing gifts of leopard fur and a colourful talking parrot.
Now, as India hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mahabalipuram – almost 1,300 years after this embassy – it’s worth revisiting the diplomatic strategy of those early medieval Indians. They lived in a less globalised and interconnected world, but their approach to international diplomacy was, as we’ll see, strikingly modern. Surprising as it may seem, that delegation, and the many embassies that South India exchanged with China over the centuries, seem to have understood how to manage the East Asian superpower at least as well as we do today.
Understanding China’s Entanglements
China’s position has never been one of unilateral dominance over the Eastern hemisphere, much as the People’s Republic would like to pretend otherwise. Its economic and geopolitical fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and the density of its connectivity to the rest of the world – and thus other Asian powers’ interest in interacting with China – have also changed commensurately.
In the 8th century CE, the Tang dynasty of China was attempting to expand its influence over the lucrative trade and pilgrimage networks of Central Asia, having fought a series of bloody campaigns against the Turkish Khanates in order to do so. However, they also faced a serious and unprecedented challenge to their authority there: the Arabs, under the Umayyad and then the Abbasid Caliphates, had exploded into Central Asia at the same time and were just as interested in expanding their influence there, working alongside the rising Tibetan empire of the Himalayan Plateau.
It was in this context that the Pallavas of South India sent an embassy from their great port city of Mahabalipuram to the Tang in 720. The ambassador, according to Chinese sources, conveyed a message from the Pallava king, who proposed to “chastise the Arabs as well as the Tibetans” and supposedly requested the Chinese emperor to provide a name for his army. A few months later, the Pallavas asked the emperor to provide a name for a temple they had built. Two months after that, the emperor not only granted flowery titles to the temple and army but also sent an ambassador to confer the title of “king of the kingdom of South India on the king of the kingdom of South India”.
If this chain of events seems absurd, that’s because it is. Contemporary Chinese political philosophy rather quaintly insisted that the emperor, the Son of Heaven, was the world’s sole universal ruler, and that all foreign monarchs were technically only “acting” rulers until recognised as such by him. Of course, the Pallavas didn’t have the slightest need for that rubber stamp, nor were they at all inclined to send an army thousands of kilometres away to Central Asia when they were already surrounded by enemies in South India.
So why did they do it? First, the Pallavas understood that China was desperate for help and heavily entangled against rivals that could threaten it. Second, they were acutely aware of China’s worldview and were able to manipulate it. Thirdly, being accorded an honoured place in the Chinese scheme of things guaranteed Tamil merchants access to the Tang dynasty’s tightly-regulated markets, thus guaranteeing them an important spot in the global trade of luxury goods. Tamil traders earned so much in the 8th century that the Pallavas were able to decorate Mahabalipuram with splendid new temples – one of which, the Shore Temple, will be lit up and visited by the Chinese and Indian premiers during the upcoming summit.
Medieval trader groups are among the unsung political actors of South Asian history. of their own volition, they formed overarching associations that brought under a broad umbrella “all possible specialist merchant groups, itinerant and sedentary, local and foreign”, and formed “potential networks spread over several regions”. Their membership was broad, diverse, and probably numbered in the thousands. Including their commercial partners, suppliers, artisans, guard groups, and so on, tens of thousands of individuals may have associated with them at their peak, making them among the most powerful associations in medieval India and thus major drivers of royal policy.
This influence can be discerned in later centuries as well. The Pallavas’ eventual successors, the Cholas, dominated the Southern tip of the subcontinent, essentially controlling one of the gateways of the Indian Ocean trade. They, too, sent splendid expeditions to China – one of which, in 1015, gifted the imperial court 21,000 ounces of pearls! Their motives were much the same as the Pallavas – indeed, some scholars have argued that the famous Chola raids into Southeast Asia were at least partly intended to ensure that Tamil merchants had access, through the Srivijaya thalassocracy of Indonesia, to Chinese markets, and that these missions may even have been driven or led by these semi-autonomous merchant corporations. Of course, Indian states were not the only ones interested in friendly relations with China – Srivijaya, for example, took a leaf out of the Pallava playbook and requested the emperor to provide a name for a temple they built in 1003.
Working With China
The parallels to today are indirect, but clear. Today, as it did a thousand years ago, India confronts a geopolitically powerful but also overstretched China suffering from a rivalry with another superpower – the USA. The PRC, like medieval Chinese empires, has remarkable military and economic clout, and sees itself as the rightful superpower of the region. Unlike medieval empires, however, it is far more assertive in its use of them and in its inclination to establish an overseas presence, and sees India with a mix of both insecurity and disdain.
Mahabalipuram is now a shadow of its former trading glory. However, its being chosen to host President Xi is not a coincidence. Its symbolic significance is profound. It would seem that India wishes to signal a return to a time when states from the subcontinent were more diplomatic and accepting of power asymmetry in their approach to China, and is willing to admit, de facto, that direct competition is in neither country’s best interest. However, it would do well to remember that China today is a long-term strategic rival to India in a way it has never been, and this requires that the power asymmetry be managed. Market access and Chinese investment are great if India can get them, but a systematic and reciprocal approach needs to be worked out to manage pervasive mistrust and minimise the existing ambivalence in regulation and policy in both countries.
More importantly, India would also do well to learn from the success of medieval South Indian kingdoms in letting the relationship be driven by “bottom-up” economic interests instead of “top-down” international diplomacy. For both the Cholas and Pallava polities, which were relatively decentralised, the former preceded the latter. This means that Indian manufacturers need to have access to Chinese markets, which could result from astute diplomacy, but more importantly, they have to be able to manufacture things that Chinese markets want. As the Indian economy slows down, the Modi government must not lose sight of the fact that bombastic foreign policy gestures are not enough: they must go hand-in-hand with the difficult work of domestic economic reforms.
 Bielenstein, Hans. Diplomacy and Trade in the Chinese World, 589-1276. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 75.
 Sastri, K A N. Foreign Notices of South India: From Megasthenes to Ma Huan. University of Madras, 1939. 116.
 Sastri 1939, 117.
 Bielenstein 2005, 5-6.
 Adshead, S A M. China in World History. Palgrave Macmillan, 1988. 117.
 Sen, Tansen. Buddhism, Diplomacy , and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400. University of Hawai’i Press, 2004. 26-27.
 Subbarayalu, Y. South India Under the Cholas. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012. 190.
 Sastri, K A N. The Cōḷas. Second Ed. Madras: University of Madras, 1955. 112.
 Sen 2004, 201.
 Ibid, 77.
 Sen, Tansen. “The Military Campaigns of Rajendra Chola and the Chola-Srivijaya-China Triangle”. In Kulke, Hermann, Kesavapany, K, and Sakhuja, Vijay (eds.) Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to Southeast Asia. Reprint. 61-74. Manohar, 2019.
 Bielenstein 2005, 60.
 Subbarayalu 2012, 197.