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Rolling the Dice: India and China in 2025

A roundtable at the ORF Campus at New Delhi held on 14 January made an attempt to look at the future of India and China in 2025. The session was chaired by Ambassador MK Rasgotra, President, ORF Centre for International Relations and moderated by Jim Yardley, New Delhi Bureau Chief of the New York Times. The speakers were Vishakha Desai, President and CEO, Asia Society and Robert Oxnam, China scholar and former President, Asia Society.

In his opening remarks, Ambassador Rasgotra said that both India and China would keep making progress in the future. India is two decades behind China today. But when and whether India wants to catch up is a moot point. In any case, India and China are stable and are likely to remain so. However, in a country like China with single-party rule, it remains to be seen what effect growing prosperity will have on the government process.

Mr Oxnam remarked that one of the fundamental changes of our times is the rise of the two Asian giants, China and India. China’s political stability today is amazing given its history of chronic instability. He recalled Premier Wen Jiabao’s remarks in August 2010 that without political reform, there cannot be continued economic reforms. China’s economic growth is singular; it is the largest economic take off by any country in history. The issue is however is whether there is fragility within, whether there are social safety nets for its aging population and mechanisms for dealing with ethnic grievances. He described China’s foreign policy as a “mercantilist” one that guarantees China markets and access to raw materials.

Dr Desai agreed that political transition at the leadership level is very stable in China. The same is true of India. She said that the question of political reform in India is essentially about the reform of the relationship between the centre and the states and the economic impact of their policies. Political reform in China has to do more with giving voice to individuals. There are more and more reforms happening at the local level but it is not clear whether this will filter to the top. The Chinese Communist Party is interested in keeping its central authority intact, but reforms at the bottom could destabilize it. Most of the Chinese leadership’s policies come out of this fear of instability. China has a clear sense of itself in the world. But there is no clarity about India’s strategic global vision and there should be more evolution in this area.

Mr Oxnam noted that the issue of identity is important to the Chinese. He said that the Chinese have a greater sense of national involvement than any other country. China traditionally had a tribute system, which was essentially a passive foreign policy. Today it has a very activist foreign policy. It is not only an economic foreign policy, but also a political foreign policy. China is investing more money to project its culture to support its national policy by opening Confucius institutes across the world. The tensions between China and the world around it have gone up dramatically recently. He claimed that this is indicative of a clear, decisive defence of what the Chinese see as sovereignty.

There was also a discussion about the potential for soft power in India’s foreign policy. Dr Desai argued that there is a need to develop a more cohesive policy to harness its soft power. India’s sense of itself is cultural and spiritual. Despite China’s investment in soft power, in the West there is no notion of Chinese culture. This is not the case with India despite the government not doing enough to project Indian culture. Mr Oxnam observed the Chinese have become addicted to GDP growth rates and so there is an impetus to keep the growth rates up. Of the top hundred Chinese companies, about 60% are state-owned. This shows that there has been an enormous effort to demonstrate the power of the state. The Chinese want a more stable society that can respond to public opinions, but this can create instability. While it is true that there is village democracy in China, this democracy has not filtered up. Looking ahead 15 years, he said that China is not going to be a democratic country by standards that India and the US would recognize. It will be perhaps a more plural society with a softer authoritarianism. There is an informal democratization of communication in China even though the system is not going to become democratic. The Chinese today have more scope to express opinions than a generation before. Dr Desai argued that in India, the government needs to be more supportive of economic growth and of the private sector. The role of the state and the private sector and how they play out will be different in both countries because of the difference in the political systems of both countries.

Dr Desai felt that China’s perception of itself in the world is bilateral: it either sees itself as superior to every other country and apprehensively as being victimized. According to her, working in a multilateral framework is not part of the ideology of China. India has more ability to work with partners as equals as it does not have this Middle Kingdom ideology. There is a very strong sense of nationalism in China, drummed up by the state. Mr Oxnam felt India is a thousand years ahead of China in political inclusiveness, non-governmental institutions, capacity to deal with a multicultural society in a homogenous way, etc. This is likely to remain so in the future though it lags behind China in economy and infrastructure. He hoped that India’s achievements in these areas would have a positive effect on China. India and China’s rise could have a stabilizing influence on the Asia Pacific. However, what stands in the way are political issues, cultural issues, frontier issues, China-Pakistan relations, etc. Most Chinese do not give enough attention to India, but this is changing as they realize that the image of India that they have is outdated.

Dr Desai said the Chinese feel India is not equal to them yet. They do not look at the criteria like cultural diversity, inclusiveness as parameters of progress. There is a huge trust deficit between India and China and this has to be bridged for both countries to come together. China’s muscular positioning as opposed to its ’peaceful rise’ is on the ascendency.

In the question and answer session that followed, the change in China’s military posture, Chinese perceptions of US arms sales to Taiwan, the role of the PLA in foreign policy, internal debates in India and China about development strategies, US-India relations and China, the Chinese version of democracy and the reluctance of other major powers to accept a Sino-centric world, etc. were discussed.

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