Writings on the bilateral relationships among the United States, China and India are common; ones triangulating the three are rare. It’s a difficult combination, not least because India is still a geopolitical mystery to most. Anja Manuel makes a welcome attempt to enter where most analysts fear to tread.
Her case for looking at this trio is simple. “Due to their size and economic might, India and China will have veto power over most international decisions, from climate change, to the openness of global trade, to nuclear policy, to human rights and business norms.”
And she doesn’t go into tortured discussions as to whether and why India, economically much smaller and poorer than the other two, will ever become a success. “Some question whether India’s economy will grow enough for it to become a great power… This misses the point. India is so large that it will impact us whether or not it lifts millions more out of poverty.”
Manuel, a textbook liberal internationalist, sees the economic growth of all three as being a, well, win-win-win for everyone. Greater engagement, especially political and economic, is the answer to the growing geopolitical frictions between China and the other two nations. “We all must find positive areas of collaboration. Most of these will not happen in the military sphere, which tends to be fraught with misunderstanding.” Among the areas, she feels, they could work together: development assistance, heath care or the environment.
As is de rigueur in such books, there are outlines of the nature of today’s China and India using both expert commentary and anecdotes. Much of this will sound familiar.
Read more: Anja Manuel on corruption in India
China’s economic model is one of “top-down control to build infrastructure” and capable of “quick policy changes.” India’s economy is lower down the growth trajectory and its “parliamentary and decentralized politics” means it “will not change as rapidly as its northern neighbour.” But if India succeeds in combining an open society with high growth it will “in the long term, create a more stable, resilient and happy society.” Manuel talks migrant workers in China and slum children in India, draws from her years as a diplomat and a corporate consultant to describe the quirks of officialdom in both countries, and sketches the political and economic twists that led to the political ascent of Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi.
A mild preference for India is evident. Describing one of Anna Hazare’s rallies in the capital, she writes, “I often visit public protests when in India. No matter how serious the issue, they always have an air of a street festival, and renew my faith in the power of citizens to improve their own government.” She quietly cheers young Chinese telling how they use coded language and keep shifting to newer instant messenger apps to keep ahead of Beijing’s censors. Modi’s reformist vision is guardedly welcomed, even though she believes Make in India “is almost certainly doomed to end with a whimper” given the greater investment attractions of a Vietnam or Bangladesh.
Washington’s geopolitical interests “will more likely align with India’s” than with China’s. If anything, Manuel argues, the US’s problem will be mustering the patience to wait as India slowly asserts itself in the international system. “We need India’s help to solve global problems and to shape China’s rise, so we want it to succeed.” But India’s poverty, which she charitably says “keeps Indian politicians up at night,” will be the “most fundamental problem India faces on its way to becoming a world power.”
Asia has become a geopolitically dangerous environment in which the US and India increasingly jostle with China. The jostling is less important, she writes, than the fact “China has no agreement in place, especially with the other Asian powers, to handle unforeseen circumstances.” In her view Beijing is powerful but ultimately insecure, a country lacking “natural allies” in the world and ruled by a party facing increasing difficulty in keeping its millennials in line and handling the protests of its have-nots. Integrating China – and India – into the international governing system is another major challenge for the US. Neither country necessarily shares the West’s worldview and “it will require real compromise and much effort by the rest of the world to nudge both China and India in the right direction.”
Manuel does not believe the India-US relationship is necessarily destined to be positive. “Right now our relationship with India is positive, but mostly because India is equally worried about China. As India expands its global role, we may have more disagreements.”
Beijing is the real bull in the global china shop. “[The West] can and must do better than simply balance the power of China by supporting India and others, trying to prevent both from becoming economically and politically powerful, or hoping that our generosity and the giants’ growth will magically lead them to uphold our values.” Easy to say, but if so many of the drivers of China’s aggression are derived from its political system, it is hard to see how cooperation in clean energy or vaccine drives will bring geopolitical stability to Asia.