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Frozen by China

India has to snap out of its stupor if it wants to be a force to reckon with in Asia, writes Sunanda K Datta-Ray.

india Updated: Jan 08, 2007 12:38 IST
Sunanda K Datta-Ray
Sunanda K Datta-Ray

China's naval expansion plan is a reminder that as 2007 unfolds, India will find that, de spite high growth figures, it has to fight for space in Asia and the world.

For one thing, the economy's bull run may fizzle out. For another, China's ambitious defence White Paper hard on the heels of its African initiatives warns of a relentless advance to what - shades of the Middle Kingdom! - Hu Jintao calls his country's "historical mission."

Victor Bulmer-Thomas, outgoing director of Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs, says China is more likely to emerge as a megapower by 2020 than India.

What this analysis overlooks is the United States' role in regulating Asia's power equation.

A booming China is essential for America's economic health; similarly, a robust (but no more) India is expected to ensure that China concentrates more on growth than power.

It is easy in Delhi or Mumbai to imagine that Wal-Mart shopping is an end in itself, that a $150,000 Porsche is the benchmark of success or that 14 per cent growth for the hotel, transport and communications sectors means national progress.

These are significant milestones. But their relevance is deceptive. "A nation of bursting opportunities is also a land of perpetual struggles," as Sonia Gandhi warned at the India Economic Summit.

"A country of dazzling prosperity is also a country of dehumanising poverty." Global power must rest on more uniform growth.

One problem is that India talks about doing things while China does them. This is a tribute to consensual politics and the democratic process; but the world is immoral enough to be more impressed by ends than means.

The completion of the Narmada Dam, nearly 20 years after it was started, is a case in point. If the plan is bad, it should have been abandoned years ago; if it is good, it should have been pushed through, also years ago, regardless of protests. Delay only conveys indecisiveness.

That also applies to India's navy. There was an international uproar when India acquired its second aircraft carrier in 1987 and Admiral JG Nadkarni boasted prematurely that India "finally had a round-the-clock blue water navy".

A Soviet nuclear submarine six months later added fuel to fire. Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Australia were among the critical countries partly because of India's overblown rhetoric and a Time magazine cover story, and partly because they took their cue from the US.

Washington spoke of nuclear proliferation and a new weapons technology in the region, but was really concerned about the submarine being Soviet (the Cold War was still on) and India's non-aligned status. The US had no economic stake in India then.

That is what smoothes the way to what Professor Bulmer-Thomas sees as China's destiny. But though President Hu's directive to his military brass to upgrade the navy might not cause surprise, his reference to China's "historical mission" in a new era is bound to cause eyebrows to rise in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even perhaps the US.

The comment and the mission it has launched deserves New Delhi's full attention.

President Hu was reiterating that between 1405 and 1433 Ming China was the world's unrivaled naval power.

That was when the Muslim eunuch admiral, Zheng He, led seven voyages to India, Africa, Persian Gulf, Arabia and Southeast Asia. Louise Levathes claims in When China Ruled The Sea that at its height the Ming navy comprised 3,500 vessels.

The Chinese boast that He's 400 ft long nine-masted ships were five times longer than the vessels Christopher Columbus took to America.

Also, that unlike the later colonising fleets of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain, the eunuch admiral was pacifically interested only in trade.

There is a possibility - albeit remote - of internal corruption and social unrest undermining China's political will.

There were 87,000 clashes between the public and the authorities during 2006, and corruption among party and military officials is far more widespread than officially admitted.

But making allowance for the purchasing power parity exchange rate, China will probably be the world's most important trading power by 2020.

Moreover, taking current military spending and making allowance for off-budget expenditure and assuming an annual growth of 10 per cent, the 2020 military budget is expected to be nearly $ 400 billion.

Professor Bulmer-Thomas lists several other factors including China's Security Council vote, cultural influence exerted through a network of Confucius Institutes (he could have added Bihar's proposed Nalanda Institute) and a steely determination to compensate for what the Chinese see as a century of humiliation between 1842 and Mao Zedong's revolution in 1949.

That was when Tibet reaffirmed its sovereignty and the MacMahon Line was agreed to.

India's chances of competing are dismissed. "India's economy may be growing fast, but the base is still very low.

Also, the current high growth rate is unsustainable, given the poor quality of urban and rural infrastructure, the dismal record on public services (especially health spending) and the complexities - not to mention corruption - involved in decision-making in federal and state governments.

"India may have made huge strides in terms of the quality of its armed forces and it also has nuclear weapons, but - as the world's largest democracy with a huge number of people still living in poverty - it faces huge pressure to raise public spending on social and infrastructure programmes rather than armaments.

"And even if it secures a UN Security Council seat, this will not come with a veto.

"As a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement and a strong opponent of imperialism, India is uncomfortable with sticks and cannot yet afford to spend much on carrots."

Here, Professor Bulmer-Thomas probably has in mind the handsome loans, aid, scholarships, expert assistance and trading opportunities China is offering to Africa's most repressive dictators.

"Last, but not least, the self-belief outside of the elite will be lacking. A regional power, yes, but not a global power and certainly not a megapower."

Many of those reasons compliment the humanity of the Indian nation and the civilised maturity of Manmohan Singh's government.

But with their appetites whetted, will Indians regard these values as sufficient compensation for tangible power?

The degree of American involvement in China's rise should also be considered. Though the US accuses China of undervaluing the renminbi by between 15 and 40 per cent and saddling it with a $ 240-billion trade deficit, the Americans cannot do without inexpensive Chinese textiles, footwear, electronics and other manufactures.

Many of these goods are made in China by American firms. Extensive Chinese pirating of DVDs, CDs and software and huge Chinese orders like the recent $8-billion contract for Westinghouse compound inter-dependence.

The two countries have launched their first Strategic Economic Dialogue and the North Korean and Iran crises demonstrate that, ultimately, they are not on opposing sides. No wonder George W Bush met President Hu no fewer than four times in 2006.

Sino-American competition will continue through 2007 but mutual self-interest will ensure that it stops short of confrontation. India, on the other hand, will neither compete nor confront.

The limited purpose of helping its growth lies in acting as a second power centre in Asia and thus, indirectly, as a brake on China's political aspirations.

(Sunanda K Datta-Ray is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore)

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