During the recent Eastern Ladakh standoff, India has, again, felt the dire need to dampen the widening power parity equation with China. C Raja Mohan, rightly contends that “Unlike in the past, China now has the military power to make good its claims and alter the territorial status quo, if only in bits and pieces.” The tickler point is how can India do so?
The circumstances engulfing the modern history of India and China are more or less similar. While China is still working to heal the wounds of its “century of humiliation” – a period between 1839-1949 during which China faced subjugation by western powers and its aggressive neighbours (Japan and Russia), India faced cultural, economic and political subjugation & plunder for 1,200 years – successive Islamic invasions for nearly 1,000 years and 200 years of colonial rule – and thus got the scars of a “millennium of humiliation”.
After India got independence and the success of the Communist revolution in China, both nations pursued their bilateral relations on five principles of ‘Panchsheel Agreement’. However, a Chinese ‘Aggression’ and recourse to ‘Use of Force’ in 1962 sowed the seeds of enmity and distrust between the two most populous countries of the world.
Economic Journey: Relative Prosperity of China vis-à-vis India
From 1979 onwards, China undertook a progressive step towards the realization of the goal of liberalization, privatization and globalization (LPG). Faced with a ‘Balance of Payments’ crisis, India, after freeing itself from the shackles of Licence Raj and state control of businesses, undertook LPG in 1991. Statisticstimes.com puts the following figures for historical comparison of Chinese and Indian economy:
“In 1987, GDP (Nominal) of both countries was almost equal. But in 2019, China’s GDP is 4.78 times greater than India. On PPP basis, GDP of China is 2.38x of India. China crossed $1 trillion mark in 1998 while India crossed 9 year later in 2007 at an exchange rate basis.”
China, once sharing equilibrium status vis-à-vis India at one time, made a great jump in economic prowess. How? There are plentitude explanations and here are some non-exhaustive ‘selected’ areas which, in my opinion, makes the difference deeper and firmer.
The first & quintessential element is the level of ‘political stability’, persisting in the political setup of the country. The one-party communist society has hardly faced any ‘threatening’ political instability or ‘internal disturbances’ during the last three decades (1990-2020). Even if it faced, it dealt with them with a great amount of brutality. Tiananmen Square protests are evidence to Chinese iron hand dealing with dissent.
India was undergoing through the phase of ‘political upheavals’ during this period. The onset of coalition era politics with the demise of congress dominance speaks volume about political instability. During the last three decades, India elected its Prime Minister (PM) 8-times while China had 3 new Presidents during the same period. The greatest and most unfortunate phase of turbulence was the decade of 1990-2000 when India effected 6-times change in PM and holding 4-times Lok Sabha elections.
Apart from this, the terrorism, supported & abetted by Islamic Pakistan, which was rooted in Kashmir during the 1990s, still drains India’s sweat and blood. It is also fighting with a daunting challenge of ‘Naxalism’ and ‘Insurgency’ in central Indian states and north-eastern states, respectively. India’s democratic spirit and multi-party political system have hamstrung its capability to quell anarchies, unlike China. Notwithstanding this, the given comparison is a selective one to prove the point of ‘political stability’ and must not be construed to suggest that the Tiananmen Square protests and terrorism in Kashmir are comparable in nature & scope and India should use undemocratic means to crush militancy.
Second, India followed the unconventional path of economic growth. Contrary to the familiar primary-secondary-tertiary trajectory of development, India witnessed primary-tertiary economic growth pattern, thus grossly neglecting its manufacturing sector. This begot lesser level of industrialization in the country having further consequences in form of higher level of unemployment and lesser avenues for export-led economic growth – contrary to the path what East Asian Tiger economies had undergone through in the 1990s.
Third, India’s R&D (Research and Development) expenditures have been, abysmally, at lower levels in comparison to that of China. According to the World Bank, China has increased its R&D expenditure from 0.56% of GDP in 1996 to 2.06% in 2015. India’s figure stood out at 0.63% & 0.62% for 1996 and 2015, respectively. While China cumulatively increased its R&D expenditure, India has unsatisfactory statistics during the above-mentioned period and on an average, maintained the level of expenditure constant – even after thirty years. It has never crossed the mark of 1% of GDP! R&D neglect produces a cycle of backwardness and for India, it has diverse consequences – bigger effects are limpid in a lower share of indigenised technology out of total defence assets being used in service.
Juxtaposing economic size disparity with R&D expenditure figures reveals further alarming statistics for India. In 1996, China’s GDP (nominal) was 2.2 times larger than India while in 2015, it ballooned to 5.2 times. The conclusion emerges that China spent, in 2015, around 17 times more money than India in R&D! The gap is only widening with each passing year.
Then comes the role of Diplomacy spearheaded through instruments of soft power. Diplomacy and Wars have been recognised as two instruments to pursue national interests. In the 21st century, wars have become costly to involve in, therefore, nation-states employ the chief tool of diplomacy. India, being a liberal democracy, having large diaspora, and her image as a peace-loving nation has greatly contributed to raising its goodwill in dealing with foreign nations. But in increasingly economic diplomacy driven world politics, its lack of deep pocket vis-à-vis China do hamstring its foreign policy objectives many a time. The Lowy Institute’s 2019 ‘Global Diplomacy Index’ place China, overtaking the USA, at 1st position with 276 diplomatic posts while India occupies 12th position with 186 posts.
Traditionally, India has been inadvertent in government-endorsed propaganda and advocacy at international platforms, unlike the USA or China. For example, Indian representatives to international institutions are more likely to be diplomats, not field experts – the latter group is preferred by US & China. While this may serve the needs of political institutions like the United Nations, it hinders India’s efficient engagement with the world in its dealing with expert and technical institutions. When the Government of India promulgated CAA and nullified article 370 of the Indian constitution, India faced huge international criticism. Had India deputed some international lawyers or expert to defend its case at international level – through the seminar, talks etc. – perhaps the scenario would have been entirely flabbergasting.
In this context, C Raja Mohanwrites: “Over the last few years, China has learnt to deploy international law in pursuit of its larger global goals. It has trained armies of international lawyers who argue from the first principles of jurisprudence, inject Chinese political conceptions like the “Belt and Road” into multilateral agreements and push for new international norms to suit Beijing’s interests.”
The Way Forward
The tradition of appointing IFS & other Indian civil servants as the representative at the international level needs to be replaced by experts of the field. For example, a trade law expert is better suited to represent India at WTO than an IAS officer. As C Raja Mohan suggests:
“Delhi could learn a trick or two from Beijing on how to make international law the keystone of India’s diplomacy, especially in the multilateral domain. If China could emulate US and Britain on leveraging legalpolitik for strategic ends, India should not find it too hard to reinvest in the geo-legal arts that Delhi inherited from the Anglo-Saxons but seems to have lost along the way.”
Effectively, it may mean appointing ambassadors from the pool of academia and experts from private sectors. This will be a revolutionary reform and is amenable to be resisted by IAS-IFS lobby!
India believes in rule-based world order while China’s recent action runs contrary to the latter’s claim of its ‘peaceful rise’. While ‘Use of Force’ for solving territorial disputes is prohibited by International law, China openly flouts this rule. Be it with India in the Himalayas in 1962 or Vietnam in 1974 and 1988 in the South China Sea. In Bangladesh-India sea arbitration award, the former got 80% of the contested area and India complied with the award. The scornful and disrespecting attitude of arbitration award regarding South China Sea Dispute is reminding us of the hollowness of the Chinese claim of its ‘peaceful rise’. India needs to cash on its rule-following approach vis-à-vis the rule-breaking approach of China for securing diplomatic edge over China among the comity of nations.
Countering Chinese military adventure requires a coordinated approach by affected states. When cold war was taking shape, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and Warsaw Pact came into existence which ensured greater equilibrium between Capitalist & Communist blocs and protected smaller states against potential aggression of superpowers. China has disputes with nearly all stakeholders in the South China Sea (SCS) region where they are at comparatively disadvantaged in strategic power position vis-à-vis India. An ‘Asian Security Charter’ may involve – India & Japan being at the forefront – a coalition of countries, supportive of rule-based world order undertaking commitment to oppose and fight the practice of any Asian power to take recourse to ‘Use or Threat to Use of Force’ to resolve the territorial or maritime dispute. USA will, of course, be a natural ally of this democratic alliance. This will ensure peace as belligerent states like China will be deterred to pursue military adventures with smaller states of the Asian region.
Incidents of 15/16 June reveal scores of Indian and Chinese fatalities. Experts are opining that China has less or more advantage over India in terms of border infrastructure which limits India’s option to undertake escalation measures. Both India and China, do not want to escalate – this fact seems to be proven by conspicuous silence of senior leaders of both governments. But in the longer term, India needs to inculcate ‘defence culture’ on the lines of Russia and Israel. By defence culture, I mean greater strength or competitiveness of indigenous defence industries over adversaries to offset the greater economic imbalance.
Two geopolitical realities prove that this deterrence has worked so far. First, notwithstanding USA’s economic superiority, Russians have not been at disadvantageous position vis-à-vis Americans in the arena of defence technology. Same applies to China – despite being economically superior over Russia, former still imports high-end defence assets from later. Second, Israel has been able to fight an unholy alliance of Islamist states due to its superior defence culture.
With the termination of a coalition dominated central government, India is enjoying much needed political stability from last six years. This needs to continue further on. Economic factors along with military power will continue to serve as two key areas where India will have to make a significant investment to level power parity equation with China. Continuous economic growth, which incorporates a strong ‘defence culture’, along with effective & simultaneous diplomatic manoeuvres will ensure India more allies at global level vis-à-vis China, notwithstanding latter’s extensive and disproportionately high economic influence. A mighty, peaceful and prosperous India is the sine qua non for preserving rule-based order in Asia, more importantly in the Indo-Pacific region.