The Chinese Are Coming
KANTI BAJPAI, Dec 11, 2010, 12.00am IST
Premier Wen Jiabao of China will come calling next week. China is India's largest and most powerful neighbour by far and therefore in a strategic sense the most consequential. It is also India's biggest trading partner, which makes it vital to the Indian economy. How should we at this juncture think about the relationship with China?
By way of context, it is crucial to remember that China is the second largest economy in the world and probably the second greatest military power as well. By any reckoning, it will be the greatest power on earth in 30 years if not sooner. It is hard to see what could stop its rise. There is a view that China's internal political and ethno-religious problems, its ageing population, and its peculiar state-led crypto-capitalist economy will singly or in combination constrain its elevation to the world's pre-eminent power. However, we should remember that before China both the US and UK had internal problems prior to their rise. Those problems did not fundamentally stop their ascent.
When Wen arrives in Delhi, he will set foot in the Indian capital as the leader of the next superpower if not the next global hegemon. Projections of China's GDP as a proportion of world GDP, in 30 years from now, range from roughly 25 per cent to 40 per cent. Whatever we may say about Indian economic growth, it is highly unlikely our country will be in the same position. However much it may gall us, we must acknowledge that the next century will be China's.
What are India's options in dealing with China? One option is to form an alliance or series of alliances against China to balance against its awesome power. Obvious partners here are the US, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and a string of South East Asian countries plus more remote powers such as France and the UK (or, if it ever becomes a cohesive strategic actor, the EU). All these actors have their own worries about China. Already, we can see an interest in the US and western powers and various East and South East Asian powers in engaging India which by virtue of its population and size is about the only country with the scale to potentially balance China in the long run. The problem here is that given China's economic links to these countries it is hard if not impossible for them to line up against it in an overt, effective way.
The other option is to bend at the knee and make concessions to China with the hope that Beijing will leave us alone. There are a number of bilateral issues that bring the two of us into conflict - territory, Tibet, river waters, and Pakistan, principally. New Delhi could simply give Beijing more or less what it wants on these. The problem is that China may want so much that it will not be possible for India to make sufficient concessions. Furthermore, on the question of our respective energy needs in the years to come, it may well be that the conflict will be so fundamental that India will not be in a position to give in.
A final option is to build Indian military strength to the point that we can deter China even if we cannot match it for overall national power. This is attractive enough but it does not answer the question of how we will do this when the Chinese could bully our military suppliers (Russia, the US, Europe). We could produce our own weapons, but the only weapon of any consequence that we have more or less successfully built is nuclear weapons. In any case, even if we can deter the Chinese from aggression, we may not prevent it from shaping world politics, as the US has done for the past century.
This suggests that perhaps the best thing we can do is what we are doing, namely, negotiate relentlessly with China, refuse to be provoked by it, engage with other states without allying against our northern neighbour, build our economy and internal political resilience, and deter aggression across the Himalayas. China did this in the last phase of the Cold War in its relations with the US. We need to do a China on China.