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Chewing over China

Threats from China are being posed as challenges for India. But threats do exist, writes Vikram Sood.

india Updated: Nov 13, 2006 02:27 IST

The theme song almost everywhere nowadays is ‘Will India catch up with China’? The French daily Le Monde had a special supplement on ‘Chindia’ in October. Eric Le Boucher predicted that by 2035, China would have overtaken the US, and India would be the third largest economy. Even though there were going to be problems in both countries, the 21st century would belong to them. Jean-Francois Huchet talked of the advantage that the Chinese had with their access to energy sources, while India had an advantage in its young population. The difference is that by 2035, India will be dependent up to 95 per cent on imported energy while China’s dependency will be 75 per cent. A country that is almost totally dependent on external sources of energy will obviously be disadvantaged. There are also several predictions that while China may keep winning the sprints, India will win the marathon.

But it may be useful to remember a few random statistics. The Chinese today produce thrice as much electricity as we do, their railways haul five times more freight traffic than ours does, and their container traffic is 15 times higher. Nearly half our roads are unpaved while 90 per cent are paved in China. Their foreign exchange reserve is six times that of India’s and their manufacturing sector adds twice as much value to the GDP as ours does. China has a huge trade surplus, while India has had a continuous trade deficit for over 50 years.

Moreover, the Chinese produce major weapons systems that they supply to their friends, often at cut rate prices, and use their deep pockets to buy global influence. So, while there is a lot to exult about in India, the reality is that we have a long way to go. Mere aggregated GDP figures do not make for a major power, usually defined as one whose voice is heard and reach felt across the globe.

China became a major power within a couple of decades because there was tenacity of purpose, a long-term perspective uninhibited by contrary political pressures and their own world view of their status in the world. Having decided what they wanted, they went about it systematically: the State committed itself to health and education, reduced its size of governance and made foreign investment attractive. Rapid economic growth brings its problems. Shanghai today is China’s showpiece and has twice as many skyscrapers as New York City. But it is equally well-known that these modern-day Potemkins hide the desolation of the poverty and inequality in the interior regions.

For the first time, China and India are charting rapid growth simultaneously. For China, this is happening amid unresolved territorial disputes and historical animosities with Japan, accompanied by competition for new resources, markets and rising military expenditures. The transformation of Japan into a country capable of rapid militarisation along with the US’s enhanced military and naval presence stretching from the Mediterranean to the western Pacific has pushed China to want to break out and ensure its future. China sees the growing warmth in the India-US relations a part of this encirclement.

Today, China considers the US to be sinister and Japan as antagonistic, but keeps its economic relations with both on a strong platform. But it treats India with disdain — unwilling to accept it as an equal and seeing to it that India has no seat at the high table of international affairs.

This is partly our fault for we revel in equality with Pakistan; Havana was just another landmark. China seeks to be treated with awe and respect. India, on the other hand, seeks approval and acceptance from the West while wanting to be loved in the neighbourhood. China has exercised strategic military options with Pakistan and North Korea, and strategic market options with India and Japan. Consequently, China has two nuclear allies in Pakistan and North Korea, having helped them get there in pursuit of its own power ambitions. The West, for all its machismo, has been unable and, at times, even unwilling to prevent this.

The Chinese have always believed that neighbouring States must be respectful and obedient. This may not cower India but the game to restrict India to the Asian subcontinent remains Chinese policy. The tactics are simple: keep borders with India tranquil but do not solve the dispute; trade with India but arm Pakistan and wean away Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. As India retreated strategically from Tibet over the last 60 years, Han Chinese and missiles moved in — the former to change the demography and the latter as an exhibition of Chinese muscle and future intent.

The recently inaugurated rail link from Qinghai to Lhasa is more than just a spectacular engineering marvel. It is an exhibition of Chinese determination. The railroad will reach Xigatse near Nepal by 2010 and may even be extended to Kathmandu. The road infrastructure along the entire India-Tibet border has strategic implications for India in the context of an unresolved border. The Chinese aim is to use their ‘soft’ economic power to reach India’s North-eastern states, Chittagong and Myanmar through these trade links via Nathu la. The lateral roads from China into Pakistan and Myanmar, along with access to the ports in Pakistan, Myanmar and, possibly, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, are designed to put India in pincers.

It can be argued that these so-called threats are really challenges and every challenge can be an opportunity. Since it does not make economic sense that Chinese freight trains and trucks that come to the border should go back empty, opportunities then exist for Indian entrepreneurs. This is perfectly rational, if one side were to view this as an economic venture and the other is ready to exploit the opportunity. The answer to both is, however, no.

President Hu’s visit to India may be a part of the India-China friendship year but it is also part of a four-leg tour that includes Vietnam, Laos, and finally Pakistan where at least 20 agreements will be signed at a time when more and more Pakistanis appear to be virulently anti-American. One would expect that the border issue, trade and Tibet will be discussed when the Chinese leader is in India. There are no quick solutions to the first because the Chinese are not in a hurry. But if the Chinese want a consulate in Kolkata, then the least we can expect is one in Lhasa.

All this hoopla about growing trade misses the point that the Chinese are flooding our consumer markets with manufactured goods (some quite shoddy), while taking away our raw materials like iron ore and steel for their growth industry. We need to correct this. Tibet is also more than just a territorial and emotive issue. It concerns Asia’s environment as well. The Indus, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra originate in Tibet. Should the Chinese decide to divert the Brahmaputra to feed their arid north and generate some 40,000 MW of electricity, all of our North-eastern states will become dry. A river water agreement with China is perhaps more urgent for India than a border settlement. Issues such as these that impact the quality of life of Indians should be our major concern, instead of getting led into a steeplechase with China.

Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing

First Published: Nov 13, 2006 02:27 IST