Participating in a China-India-United States trilateral discussion at a leading thinktank in Beijing, a young scholar had a question that many around the world increasingly ask. “Today, the US is the number one power and China is the number two power,” said the young man. “By 2025, China will be the number one power and the US will be the number two power. A dialogue between us is necessary to manage the transition.” He then wondered aloud, “But why is India here? What is India’s rank? Where will it be in 2025?”
There is no use telling today’s young Chinese that for centuries, and till not long ago, the gap between China and India was never wide enough for anyone to view them as unequal. Linear projections that show China becoming the world’s biggest economy by 2025 also show India becoming the third biggest. But linear projections are statistical short-cuts and history takes its twists and turns. China has, for centuries, been ahead of India in terms of income and manufacturing capability. But in the last two decades, the gap has widened sharply in terms of economic performance, military capability and global influence.
Even so, an Indian political leader who would have no problem complaining to a domestic audience about being bullied by a developed Western power, even earning public sympathy for it, would only be inviting derision and mockery if she were to make similar complaints about China. Ordinary people understand that the rich and powerful bully the poor and meek. But no Indian political leader can afford to so complain about China, since China is still viewed by the general Indian public as more of an equal than a mightier unequal.
Therein lies the challenge for India’s political leadership in managing the transition phase in the medium term, when China remains more powerful but cannot be treated as such. To be sure, China is nowhere as powerful as the US, but it has acquired the ability to impose its will on individual nations around the world. From Australia to Germany, South Africa to South Korea, political leaders are careful not to rub China the wrong way. When the odd one like Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tries to do so, the Chinese make their displeasure known to all, and the Western media lecture Abe to be careful. Indeed, even US President Barack Obama had to postpone a meeting with the Dalai Lama at one point so as not to upset Beijing, and when the British tried to be brave about it, they were shown their place.
Given this context, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has so far been measured in his management of relations with China. He has been firm when firmness was required and accommodating when accommodation was possible. When the Chinese protested against the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, the prime minister let it be known that no one can dictate to India who can travel where within the country. After the Depsang incursion, while some of his advisors advocated a cautious response, he let it be known that Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit would be in jeopardy if Chinese troops did not retreat to their earlier positions.
More to the point, during the past decade, India has taken steps to strengthen its defence and surveillance capability along the Himalayas. One of Manmohan Singh’s important initiatives in the Northeast was to build the trans-Arunachal highway and bolster border posts. On the other hand, he has been extremely correct and cordial in his dealings with China, and has never shied away from recognising China’s emerging regional and global role.
Over the years, Manmohan Singh has devoted considerable time to understanding China, carefully poring over internal PMO files dating back to the 1950s, reading books and taking tutorials from the likes of Lee Kuan Yew and top-class China scholars at home and abroad.
In recognition of his wise management of India’s China policy, the Chinese leadership is expected to go out of its way to welcome the prime minister on his second bilateral visit. He has been given a unique opportunity to lecture to China’s future leaders at the communist party’s school in Beijing, where many of India’s communists have also been trained in the past.
While some of Manmohan Singh’s advisors continue to seek a cautious approach, overawed by the current imbalance of power and prosperity between the two countries, the prime minister would be well advised to draw a lesson or two from his other host this week, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The power-prosperity imbalance between Russia and the US is even bigger than that between India and China. Yet Putin showed recently how Russia’s geo-political clout can make up for its geo-economic weakness. If US mistakes in the Middle East helped Putin raise Russia’s global profile, China’s missteps and hubris in East and Southeast Asia, once called Indo-China, have opened up new spaces for India’s profile to be raised.
To be sure, India must continue to focus on its domestic agenda of economic growth and development and maintain good relations with all major powers. In pursuing these priorities, India can work with China, being more open to Chinese investment and increased business-to-business links. Over time, both China and India can resolve their border disputes, making sure that incidents like Depsang do not happen again.
However, for a long time to come, both countries would have to earn each other’s trust, given the trust deficit that has built up over the past half a century. Both Manmohan Singh and President Xi Jinping have their “five thoughts” on bilateral relations (‘Five thoughts on China’, IE, March 25), but the one thought that should define their dialogue this week is that both have an obligation and a responsibility to ensure the peaceful rise of Asia in the 21st century. Neither can afford to play zero-sum games, and both would be better off learning to cooperate while competing, avoiding conflict while contending with the trust deficit.
The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy,
International Institute for Strategic Studies and Hon. Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi email@example.com