By Chidanand Rajghatta
Things have steadily gone south between India and China, purportedly over territorial spats and Beijing’s malevolent backing of terrorists inimical to New Delhi. Both issues arise from larger differences in perception over each other’s role in the region and across the world. Heated rhetoric, even talk of punitive war, is in the air. It is not a reassuring sight or sound for the world, let alone the neighbourhood, when two of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world taunt and threaten each other through mouthpieces. And it certainly does not behoove legatees of great civilisations.
Such fine sentiments aside, what should be New Delhi’s response to Beijing’s belligerence? Acquiesce and seek accommodation with a neighbour whose economic growth is now the stuff of lore and appears to have given it military heft? Or seek alliances and partnership on its periphery in an effort to counter it? If it adopts the former policy, where does the slippery slope stop or end? And if the latter, how reliable will the partnerships be?
In more propitious times, Indian MP and public intellectual Jairam Ramesh coined the portmanteau term ChIndia amid hopes that constructive cooperation and competition between the Asian giants, who between them account for a third of the world’s population, would trump confrontation and conflict. Indeed, the expectations did not appear entirely misplaced. China became India’s largest trading partner as the two countries attempted to overcome the Himalayan mistrust between them through commercial engagement, even if people-to-people contacts lagged.
But much of the bilateral trade centred on goods and raw materials. Bangalore may have supplied granite for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC in the 1980s, but a decade ago, almost the entire edifice of Beijing Olympics was built on stone from India’s Silicon Plateau. In those intervening decades, the same Plateau’s fecund education system and engineering chops supplied the US not with stone but with services and tens of thousands of skilled workers, many of whom would become American citizens. They would eventually counter the ChIndia talk with their own IndUS projections, even though the two are not mutually exclusive and in an ideal world there could be a ChIndUS.
India and the US have no borders but they have plenty in common, perhaps more than India has with China. They include, to a degree, language, democracy (however imperfect), open society (not free of prejudice), and a free press (occasionally supine). All these have led recent leadership, spurred by public opinion and business contacts, to surmise that the two countries are natural partners, if not natural allies – New Delhi being allergic to the term allies.
Indeed, if you combine goods and services, US-India commerce would easily top India-China trade. Besides, there is no country in the world – certainly not China – that is home to more than four million expatriates of Indian origin, including citizens and permanent residents. It is this constituency – highly educated, wealthy, and vocal – that propelled New Delhi closer to Washington in the last two decades and continues to do so, much to China’s irritation.
Even within India, public sentiment appears to favour Washington over Beijing. This despite talk of civilisational contacts and Asian togetherness with our northeastern neighbour, and notwithstanding signs of US decline and China’s rise. A recent Pew poll of 38 nations across the world showed a median of 42% saying the US remains the world’s leading economy, but a striking 32% named China as Numero Uno. That included seven of 10 European nations (UK, Germany and Spain among them) and Australia, but not India. In India, 43% of respondents continue to see US as the top economy compared to 11% who think China is the top dog.
Favourable opinion of China has also fallen in several Asian countries, including in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and India. In India it has declined from 40% to 26% over the past three years as Beijing has persistently thwarted New Delhi’s efforts to join the international high table. The slide is even more precipitous in Japan, where it has fallen from 55% in 2002 to 13% in 2017.
These numbers suggest that New Delhi should strengthen its Asian engagement even more, with or without US encouragement given the fickle nature of the current Washington dispensation. Besides, it is not as if the US will be charitable towards India or sympathetic to its issues with China, as it attempts to resolve its own wrangles with Beijing, with whom it has a massive, almost insurmountable, trade deficit. On more than one occasion, Washington has deferred to Beijing on issues critical to India.
The road to countering China should not lead directly to Washington, but could go through Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and other Asian nations increasingly leery of an assertive China. In fact, the doctrinal change that President Donald Trump is enforcing – compelling US allies to spend their own lolly on defence – actually works to India’s advantage. A more sinewy Japan and Korea, along with Vietnam, can effectively counter Chinese hegemony.
There being no permanent allies or friends in international relations, China itself can render all these plans infructuous simply by accommodating India’s aspirations. But puffed up with its sense of economic accomplishment – undoubtedly impressive – there is no indication that Beijing is in any mood to entertain India. The Doklam spat is a small manifestation of that mindset.
Times of India, July 19, 2017